Short Takes: “Further News of Defeat,” “Hallelujah Station and Other Stories”
When Autumn House Press began in 1998, they published poetry. In 2008, the Pittsburgh-based press expanded its offerings to fiction, and over the past decade, few small presses can claim to have published a catalog of work as reliably entertaining and artful. In the fall, Autumn House Press published two new story collections from up and coming writers.
Michael X. Wang’s collection of stories is the winner of Autumn House Press’ 2019 Fiction Prize, judged by Aimee Bender. Wang, an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Arkansas Tech University, was born in Fenyang, a small coal-mining city in China, and what’s so exciting about his collection is how many tones and registers he can operate in. Some stories, like “The Well,” open with a focus on family history: “For over three hundred years, since the return of the two brothers Ai and Jiu, our family has been known across the province for our ability to dig and construct wells.”
Wang is also funny, as is the case at the opening of “Cures and Superstitions”: “When the package of tiger bones and alligator tails arrived with the monthly shipment of fertilizer, Old Wisdom pasted a neon-green sign in front of his antique and herbal supply store with two words: They’re here!” The neon-green sign, the exclamation point—this is a writer having fun.
But these stories are also full of conflict and even violence. Wang blends fictional towns and figures with real events, like the Tiananmen Square massacre, to construct a range of stories downright epic in scope. It is incredibly reductive to say that a country the size of China—or any country, for that matter—can be captured by a single book. But the characters in Wang’s “Further News of Defeat” provide an engaging, wide-ranging look at a country where the only thing more common than family and tradition is change.
The characters in M. Randal O’Wain’s collection are definitely Americans. Everyone has an angle of some kind. Consider the start of “Rembrandt Behind Windows”: “All Damien wanted to do was pilfer what was left of Mom’s.”
Poor Damien is downright tame when compared to the narrator of “Shadow Play,” who establishes his pilfering ways in the very first line of the story: “Before Bobby vanished, him and me sold plastics to the Shade Point PD in exchange for candy corn, chocolate bars, and chewing gum.”
The characters in the most danger in “Hallelujah Station” are the ones who don’t know exactly what they need. Many of them are stuck in a bad spot, as is the case at the beginning of “Just Like Blue Velvet”: “The apartment that Walter had until recently shared with his wife was on the fourth floor in a neighborhood where windows without plywood were a luxury.”
Like the characters in Wang’s collection, those in O’Wain’s stories live in a country known as a superpower. But the superpower these characters must possess is the ability to survive another day.