Writing Life: “Short Stories Don’t Sell”

My late husband Jerry had dyslexia; he preferred short stories to novels or book-length non-fiction because short form writing was less taxing for him to read. Flannery O’Connor, my favorite author, was principally a short story writer. She has two short novels, but her short stories are what created her enduring place in the canon of American literature despite her premature death from lupus and her relatively small body of work.

John Boyne, the Irish novelist, has a whole cluster of books, including some written especially for children. You may be familiar with his The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was made into a film in 2008 — a chilling one at that. The film lingered with me for a long time. After I’d read all the Boyne adult novels, I read the Boy in the Striped Pajamas. For an adult to capture the voice of a nine year old child is hard –Boyne does it brilliantly. Young Bruno’s life changes dramatically after “The Fury” and his blonde mistress come to the house for dinner in order to convey an important new promotion on Bruno’s German commandant father. The Fury is, of course, the Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler. How simple, and how authentic, that a nine year old would hear this fearsome man referred to as “The Fury”.

When I find a writer I like I typically work my way through that writer’s entire body of work. John Boyne has a book of short stories, published in 2015 by the UK division of Penguin Random House. Beneath the Earth isn’t on Kindle, unlike everything else Boyne has written, and I had to order the book in print form from the UK.

Boyne is gay, Irish, and at least formerly Catholic, and most of his work revolves around the intersection of those three.  I’ve just read the first story, entitled Boy 19. Here’s the opening paragraph:

I first started charging for sex a few days after my nineteenth birthday. I recognized my body for what it was: an asset that could be rented to the lonely for an hour at a time. There’s no shortage of damaged men in Dublin who want to lavish attention on the boy they weren’t allowed to love when they were young and I knew they would like me.”

The Boy finds his engagements online, using a fake name. Those who solicit his attentions use fake names too. The Boy knocks on one door at the pre-arranged time, and the man who answers is his father, who’d abandoned the family when the Boy was much younger.

The Boy laughs, and walks away. He wipes his father’s fake name and number from his phone. His father is left standing by the open door,  muttering “Jesus fucking Christ.”

I can’t wait to read the rest of the stories.

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