As the 90 or so years of the academic short story’s existence are starting to show us more and more, perhaps its most lasting legacy is that it allows us to concentrate on character in such an intense way; stripped of its need to carry a strong plot like a full novel must, but still armed with the full power that literature has, the format seems to lend itself to penetrating looks at the human condition, exploring all the complicated facets that arise from sometimes very pedestrian situations.
This is certainly the case, for example, with the new story collection “Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure” by Craig Lancaster, the Billings author of 2009’s affecting examination of the ins and outs of Asperger syndrome, “600 Hours of Edward.”
Although little actually happens in the course of these stories, the events themselves are deliberately loaded for maximum effect, with Lancaster looking at how sometimes innocuous stimuli can have far-reaching consequences in the life of the average person, or at the very least can give us a much clearer view of the people around us as they react to it.
Take for example the best story in the book, also its first, “Somebody Has to Lose,” which has a deliciously simple yet expansive conceit at its core: that the teenage female basketball progeny of an otherwise unremarkable small town, so freakishly good that she was once featured on Johnny Carson as a young girl, has finally become old enough to join the high school team, right in the same period when a once multiple-championship-winning coach is in the middle of a career-defining slump, all by coincidence happening during the town’s 125th anniversary. It’s certainly not a substantial enough idea to carry a whole novel, but under Lancaster’s delicate style, it’s the perfect milieu for exploring all kinds of interpersonal relationships that might arise from such a flashpoint — the coach’s relationship to his “sports widow” wife, his relationship with the town’s overzealous boosters and local paper, his relationship with the teen athlete herself (and the athlete’s relationship with the coach’s teen daughter, itself more complicated than first assumed), etc.
Granted, not all the stories work this well — one of the weaker entries, for example, “Alyssa Alights,” is not much more than a simplistic Social Realist screed, as preachy and sentimentally manipulative as a forgotten 1930s WPA propaganda play — but when they do work well, as they mostly do here, it’s a real delight to inhabit Lancaster’s lonely, darkly majestic Montana locations and desperate characters, a look at a slowly eroding 21st-century America that’s as strong as many more well-known titles by major presses.
It comes strongly recommended.
Jason Pettus is the owner of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.