Just before the war with the Eskimos (and others)

You know how sometimes there are things, like certain Twilight Zone episodes or a mime performance, that are actually more interesting when a person describes them to you then when you actually see them yourself? It doesn’t even matter if the person is a very good storyteller; what I mean is that the thing itself is somehow more interesting when it is described.

The opposite can be true as well, which is actually what I’m trying to get at here. I may be one of, I don’t know, 451 readers out there who prefer short stories to novels. It took me a long time to admit this, and I even feel weird admitting this now, as though the stories I’m talking about are actually in Hustler, which they’re not (to my knowledge). It’s just that when a story goes well, there is something so perfect about it. And so, I will attempt to describe some of my favorite stories right here, all of which are even better than my descriptions of them, if you care to look them up (as well you should).

1. “Tricks” by Alice Munro. Well, of course. In this story, a woman meets a man on a train and he tells her to meet him one year later, wearing the same dress. When the day comes, the woman shows up at the door of the man’s apartment. The man answers the door, but surprisingly shuts it in her face. At the end of the story, we (and the woman) finally learn what misunderstandings took place that day, as it is now years and years later. Tricks!

2. “I Only Came to Use the Phone” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A woman’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and she ends up hitching a ride on a bus that is on its way to a mental hospital. She is admitted as a patient and when her husband finally shows up, he ends up insisting that she is insane, and the woman herself ultimately believes it too. Look at the title. It’s all there.

3. “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” by Edward P. Jones. How can you not love a story that begins this way: “On what was to have been one of my last days in Washington, my mother, my aunt, and murdered Ike’s mother came up to the second-floor office I had been sharing with Samuel Jaffe.” It is a bit of a detective story, but the part that thrilled me as I read it in The New Yorker, the part that made me go out and read every single thing Edward P. Jones ever wrote was when the narrator describes going to his mother’s every Sunday for supper and how he and his brother got to choose the Kool-Aid flavor every other week: “Freddy was a lime man.” Stick with this guy. You will not be sorry.

4. “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter. This story imagines the events that led up to Lizzie Borden’s famous murder of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts, 1892. It’s as good as it sounds.

5. “Sleep” by Haruki Murakami. If you know Murakami, then you know that an ordinary character will experience something completely out of the ordinary. In this case, it is a housewife, who one day finds that she can no longer sleep. Yet she never feels tired and spends all her nights reading and eating chocolate. She also swims for hours during the day. She feels fantastic. And yet neither her husband nor her son notices that she no longer sleeps. No one notices anything, in fact, except the narrator herself.

6. “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” by J.D. Salinger. Everyone goes crazy for the Esme story in that Nine Stories book, but for me there’s something about this one, maybe simply how the guy who can’t stop talking keeps trying to get his sister’s friend to eat half a chicken sandwich he happens to have in his bedroom and how the girl leaves the apartment (and the story) with the half sandwich in her pocket.

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