Grab your bug-out bag and get ready. The principal story in Beth Bosworth's "The Source of Life and Other Stories" lets you know this collection is best approached with your emotive hiking boots laced and tied.
Ms. Bosworth, a writer living in Brooklyn, is the 2012 recipient of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, established in 1980 and administered by the University of Pittsburgh Press to recognize writers of short fiction with prominent publication and a nice cash prize. This year, judge Sven Birkerts chose a collection of concise, unapologetic and inventive stories that pack a fast and tough punch like featherweight champions.
University of Pittsburgh Press ($24.95).
With terse dialogue and at-times borderline-apocalyptic landscape, these stories display emotional subtlety and more-than-meets-the-eye depth. The honed narratives fall across a spectrum of subject matter: dementia, religion, loss, the diminishing nostalgia of the past, divorce and racial tensions. All in some way explore the multifaceted theme of survival.
The title story illustrates a woman, emotionally and physically isolated, left to address her own internal reactions to loss -- while caring for a dog bent on self-destruction. In a more humorous tone, in "Promise," a momentary and fleeting interaction springs up between estranged neighbors as the protagonist struggles to fulfill her father's last wishes.
In "The First Slow One," the reader is introduced to a narrator hesitating at a number of crossroads: a mother counseling a son poised on the brink of manhood, a woman questioning the waning reality of her faith, a seasoned divorcee re-entering the dating scene with an emotionally frigid man. Ms. Bosworth presents a character at the center of a swirl of activity, uniquely insulated in her clarity of self-analysis and subsequent paralysis to conceptualize and act upon change that could diminish her increasing impression of ennui. Beneath the narrator's cerebral self-analysis, Ms. Bosworth crafts a context illustrating the character's more profound and indeterminate loneliness.
This ability is the genius of the collection: While narrative compassion may be wanting, the text itself generates a deeper underlying sense of loneliness within the reader -- sensations ranging from unease to an outright confrontation with the inevitable isolation of humanity.
Several of the stories in the collection are mere vignettes, including "Jamaica Bay Wild Refuge," which gives a key-hole's peek into the voice of a woman walking with her elderly mother.
Although temptingly easy to overlook, these smaller stories are at times more effective in impact. In fewer than three pages, Ms. Bosworth contrasts the protagonist's perspective through the lens of similar elements found within The Odyssey. The text suddenly breaks away from a setting description, and the narrator notes: "In a given story the reader may find conflict, conflict resolution, and a reversal of terms; then again, some say that each statement contains its opposite." Ms. Bosworth drops passages like this subtly and effectively into the text. It simultaneously underscores her narrative development and her unique stance on literary experimentation.
In the last several years, the story collections that went on to win this award have ranged from laugh-out-loud to elusive and experimental but underscored in totality by realist accounts of emotional strains. The 2011 Drue Heinz Prize winner, Shannon Cain's "The Necessity of Certain Behaviors," exhibited similar emphasis on the emotional no-man's-land that lives on the border of love, desire and the oh-so-disappointing reality of living. It's a delight, with any truly salacious notes mollified by her perfectly timed wit.
The power of Beth Bosworth's "The Source of Life and Other Stories" is revealed when considering the collection as a whole: You see her sly ability to take the merest slice of daily existence and distill its essence, magnifying quite ordinary events to their equivalent in the characters' emotional reality.
Beth Bosworth will read from her work on Nov. 20 at 6 p.m. at the Carnegie Library Main Branch in Oakland as part of the Writers Live @ CLP series presented by Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures. Register for the free tickets at pittsburghlectures.org .books - bookreviews
Holly Christie, a lawyer, lives in the North Side (firstname.lastname@example.org).