Short Takes: “Whiskey, Etc.” “Death by Cyanide”
Sherrie Flick’s latest collection is described as “short (short) stories”—that parenthetical “short” preparing you for one page tales, even one-paragraph blasts. Scholars of marketing might see this as evidence that fiction creators are getting with the short-attention span condition of the modern consumer, offering an efficient product that can be noshed like a meal replacement protein bar. Nothing so craven here. Flick’s collection is best appreciated as a mosaic, the tiny tiles nudged up against larger pieces, building to a full image when ingested in big gulps.
Flick, a contributor to Pittsburgh Quarterly who teaches at Chatham University, is a nationally recognized writer of flash fiction, a literary movement that includes some of Hemingway’s work and wins contemporary awards in the hands of Lydia Davis (who sets the standards with sentence-long stories). “Whiskey, Etc.” arranges the stories by eight themes—whiskey being one, the others ranging from soap to pets to songs and dessert. As far as I can tell, the groupings simply corral stories in which said items pop up, except for the “art” tranche, narratives constructed by Flick after gazing upon works of art, such as Alex Katz’s “Lake Time” and a Luke Swank photograph, both at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Aside from those locally resident artworks, and the collection’s Heinz-like number of stories— 57—Pittsburgh is not much evident in Flick’s fiction. That’s not a criticism, however—she creates her own world here.
It’s hard to pick a favorite from the cavalcade, but “Learning to Drink Coffee in Idaho” (in the coffee, tea section) is up there. A struggling traveling salesman from New Jersey gets jerky with the help about coffee at his motel in Idaho, and gets his comeuppance, with pecan rolls thrown in. “Remember,” says the wisdom-dispensing waitress, “sales is all about negotiation.” Within its four pages, the arc of a life is described, and hope rings out. You’ll find your own favorites among the concentrated bounty of “Whiskey, Etc.,” as the stories pile up like a crazy quilt, exquisitely stitched.
It was one of the most disturbing murder cases in modern Pittsburgh history— the distinguished neuroscience researcher Robert Ferrante, convicted in 2014 of killing his wife, an equally accomplished neurologist at UPMC, with a dose of cyanide in their tasteful Schenley Farms home. Post-Gazette reporter Paula Reed Ward covered the story from the beginning and every twist and turn of the trial. She followed it with a multipart series for the PG, “Irretrievably Broken,” which explored the personal histories of the killer and victim, trying to answer the stomach-turning question: How does an apparently loving husband and father, a pillar of his community, turn into a calculating killer?
Paula has been a colleague at the Post-Gazette for years, so let me try to be impartial: She is a tremendous, dogged reporter who always lets facts make the story compelling—no writerly flourishes to paper over gaps. “Death By Cyanide” shows her at the top of her form. She has tracked down every single aspect of the lurid case—and illuminated the human beings behind it. Her fidelity to detail might prove taxing for a casual reader, especially the weeks of the trial. But there it all is, a master class in coverage of courtroom procedure. The preponderance of evidence will leave you with no doubt that the guilty verdict was correct.