Fiction: Jin, Grisham, Bloom sparkle in new story collections

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It's been a good harvest for American short stories lately, as this trio demonstrates.

"A Good Fall" by Ha Jin. (Pantheon, $24.95)

The characters in award-winning writer Ha Jin's new collection live in Flushing, N.Y., home to the largest concentration of Chinese immigrants in the city. The stories are explorations of characters surrendering to life's complexity.

In "The Bane of the Internet," the narrator laments the speed in which he can communicate with his sister in Sichuan. Easier communication means more demands for money and the realization that the shrinking global world means an independent life is impossible.

Or Dave in "Choice," who meets Eileen and Sami where he agrees to help prepare Sami for her SAT's. He becomes close to both of them -- too close -- three is a tricky number in relationships and never computes without hurting someone. In equally well-crafted stories we have a man who falls in love with his girlfriend's parrot, an English professor who grapples with defection and grandparents who lament their choices when they discover their grandchildren are Americanizing their names.

Some of these stories feel anecdotal, smaller focuses of larger works, but it's Mr. Jin's carefully constructed worlds that offer the reader so much pleasure.

"Ford County" by John Grisham. (Doubleday, $24)

John Grisham writes huge best-sellers, slick thrillers that are usually transformed into blockbuster movies starring megawatt movie stars.

His first short-story collection is fun: Big and bold, often told with a collective perspective as if the whole South is invested in the telling. When the stories are transformed to the silver screen, they will not star Tom Cruise, however.

The characters here are old Southern boys down on their luck and short of intelligence. These guys are baffled by the big world -- clumsy with life, and lousy with the choices they're making.

In "Blood Drive," we meet an oddball trio of buddies when they leave Ford County, Miss. They're traveling to Memphis where rumor has it that a hometown kid is going to die unless he gets some blood. A trip to a strip club whacks out any goodwill their mission might have had.

In "Fish Flies, the story that most resembles Mr. Grisham's novels, attorney Mark Stafford, a down-on-his-luck lawyer in small town Mississippi, receives a phone call from a high-powered New York firm that will earn him some cash from an unresolved case. The money allows him a freedom to do exactly as he pleases.

These stories, like his longer thrillers, are hugely entertaining. No one who likes Mr. Grisham's big fiction will be disappointed with these shorter tales.

"Where the God of Love Hangs Out" by Amy Bloom. (Random House, $24)

At first glance the stories in Amy Bloom's deceptively intricate new collection might seem like scenarios borrowed from the "Jerry Springer" show because with their perverse, twisted nature, they seem too far-fetched to interest us beyond an abject curiosity.

But it's Ms. Bloom's insight into character that develops these stories into realms television would never explore. "Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages" introduces the characters of William and Clare whose problems expand over four linked stories.

We meet them when they're married to other people but having sex with each other while their spouses sleep in the same house. William has a big belly and gout while Claire's husband is handsome. And there are the kids.

Their relationship lasts as they divorce and move in together. Claire's emotional state at the end of these four linked stories encapsulates an individual's right to embrace, even love his or her own losses.

In a second set of linked stories which starts with "Sleepwalking," Julia, stepmother to Lionel and mother to Buster, has just lost her husband. She has a tricky relationship with her mother-in-law and ruins her relationship with her stepson when she has sex with him. The narrative leaps years forward. The boys are grown up but Julia continues to act as their home base, however convoluted their past.

Ms. Bloom's stories, always complicated, are poignant studies of people who acknowledge the mess they've made of their lives but who can't quite see any way out.

Sharon Dilworth is professor of English and creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and author of two short-story collections. First Published March 14, 2010 5:00 AM


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