(South Bend, IN: Wolfson Press, 2020)
When writing her slim novel, The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers explained to her husband in a letter her obsessive focus on revision: the novel was “one of those works that the least slip can ruin…. It must be beautifully done. For like a poem there is not much excuse for it otherwise.” There’s pleasure in a slim book, so easy to hold. The odds of encountering a wasted word, padding of any sort, are low. Reading them is being alert to language without wariness of an awkward phrase.
In her slim book, The Beauty of Their Youth, Joyce Hinnefeld borrows McCullers’ young protagonist, Frankie, to star in one of the five short stories that make up the collection, and seemingly borrows the directive to avoid the “least slip,” too. There is nothing half-formed, nothing thrown in to meet the industry-standard word count. The stories, which range from 12 to 24 pages, are character-driven, offering moments in the lives of individuals of diverse age and origin. The geography of these fictional worlds is wide, too, with scenes that span central Georgia to the Greek island of Naxos. The particularity of place is often a critical influence on her characters, whether it’s the simultaneous languor and unease instilled by the thick heat of the Florida Everglades or the casual tolerance of a small Pennsylvania town inspired by a part-time population of New York City weekenders.
At the core of each story is an individual’s confrontation with the unfixed nature of the self, moments when a person’s accepted notions of themself are challenged and muddied, whether the jarring transformations of adolescence or the stocktaking of middle-age. Two of the stories focus on people whose interiority is often overlooked, with others often seeing only their steadiness as long-time caretakers and builders of daily life. They are mothers of adult children, women over fifty. It’s refreshing to listen in on such women’s doubts, judgments, and memories, whether petty or profound. In the title story, a mother travels with her college-aged daughter to Greek islands and Rome, places she gallivanted in her youth, and grapples with the ways her daughter is unlike her own young self, often in ways that don’t reflect well on herself. In “Polymorphous,” the roles are reversed, and Joan, a woman in her sixties, considers her role as a daughter as she tends to Richard, her prickly elderly gay neighbor, who had been her mother’s lifelong friend. As she runs errands, driving Richard to the grocery store, taking him to lunch, she reconsiders what made her mother a critical, difficult person, and mulls over her death. Both stories demonstrate a masterful grasp of the unpredictable emotional currents that run beneath even the most competent self presented to the world.
In the two stories featuring younger women, the self-doubt is more explicit, and the action more dramatic. “A Better Law of Gravity,” the sort-of sequel to McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (though knowledge of the novel isn’t necessary to enjoy the story), Frankie has grown into a college student home for the summer, and has renamed herself FJ. Listless and lonely in her pajamas, FJ impulsively jumps into in a car with her sister-in-law, who, she comes to realize, is “off of her medication,” and in a frantic, frenzied place. In “Everglades City,” Inge, a young German tourist makes a similarly abrupt decision and abandons her tour of Florida to live with a gentle alligator handler, ditching her plans for a steady job and marriage. For reasons not quite clear to herself, Inge then begins to buy guns of assorted capacity and size. Both stories depend on a surface tension — an unstable, speeding driver, the appearance of multiple lethal weapons — but gain their substance and complexity from the unexpected images hovering at the edges of awareness, meaningful but mysterious. For FJ, it’s a recurring memory of her “roommate’s dried-up washcloth hanging on the rack on the back of the door of their freshman dorm,” “dusty blue with frayed edges.” For Inge, it is a “dead anhinga, its head curved almost modestly below an unnaturally bent wing.” The encounter with the dead bird is followed by “a mix of restlessness and anxiety” that begins “to seep through at the edges of her new hot, green world.” The images, ordinary or otherworldly, function as they do in a poem, as a leap into the unconscious and the dream logic of metaphor that would be undercut by explication.
All of these stories are told in the third person, in past tense, focused on the woman protagonist – a steady, comfortable narrative more. There is one exception, a shorter story with a male protagonist which is also the most formally inventive. “Benedicta, or A Guide to the Artist’s Resume,” is told in the form of a detailed artist’s statement. This doesn’t feel like a gimmick, but rather a playful experiment with point of view, because we discover that it’s the character who has taken control of this rigid form, an artist sticking his tongue out at the idea of the artist bio and writing about oneself in third person. He’s the one choosing to reveal his history of names, lovers, personas, works of art, and shifts in critical perception via sections like “grants and awards,” and “solo exhibitions.” In Hinnefeld’s universe, this is also the character with the greatest awareness of the multiplicity of selves and the centrality of images to the unconscious. It’s been his delight to rechristen himself and start with a fresh name in other cities, often at the expense of a woman or child along the way. At the time of the story he’s coming to terms with the accusations of misogyny in his art, and the past selves who made that art. This remaking of the artist self — whose work evolves from “cartoonish breasts painted on concrete to “the tiniest landscapes” painted on the cotton crotches of underwear, to rubber tire tributes to the American highway —is a counterpoint to the women who populate Hinnefeld’s other stories, who seek expression through vegetable patches, Facebook posts, and quick decisions to be examined later.
It’s clear the stories showcase not only great control but also great range. Wolfson Press has published the collection under its “American Storytellers” series, which aims to promote forms neglected by major publishing houses. The Beauty of Their Youth makes a good case for the power of the short story, the pleasure that comes from limitation in an over-saturated culture, the ease that comes with knowing each brief work will be precise and finely crafted.
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Megin Jiménez is the author of Mongrel Tongue (1913 Press), a collection of prose poems and hybrid texts. Her work has appeared in Barrow Street, Denver Quarterly, Barrelhouse, Mantis, Redivider and other journals. She teaches at the International Writers’ Collective and works as an editor and translator. Find more of her work at meginjimenez.com