Where has summer gone? Already, the kids are off to school, and any good pupil can tell you, once school opens, summer will crawl off and die. Of course, here in Mississippi we still have two miserable months of heat and mosquitoes. So to honor any summer hold-outs, last-minute vacationers, and balmy backyard weekend sunbathers, we'll dole out a few more summer reading recommendations.
This week we go back to the summer of July 2001. Our nation was celebrating its 225th birthday. It was an innocent time, the world still unaware of the major shift just ahead. Moviegoers were lining up to watch Shrek and Jurassic Park III. Tunes by Usher and Nelly — and how could we forget "Bootylicious" by Destiny's Child? — were spewing out of car radios like muffler stink. And in books, underdog newcomer Dan Chaon released his short story collection Among the Missing, which would find a modest readership and would become a finalist for the National Book Award.
We discovered the book early and were caught off guard by its power. Born from the Raymond Carver school of modern American realism, these stories were of a more distinct and genuine talent than most of the MFA-harvested fiction of the time. Chaon does domestic drama as well as anyone, which seemed likely then and has been affirmed by two subsequent novels, including his latest, Await Your Reply, which he'll sign and read from at Turnrow later this month.
The stories in Among the Missing are quiet, peculiar portraits of families in various stages of dissolution. There are tragic accidents, deaths in the family, strained relationships, and personal turmoil, yet Chaon manages to prop up these heavy emotions and show us something unique and hopeful, even comical, under the pain. You're lured in by the simple precision of his language, the authentic and humorous gestures of his characters, and before long you've become deeply immersed in the story, the jabbing emotional truths almost always finding their target. There is a distinctive tone, a kind of cheerful melancholy, at play in these stories, a reconciliation that great art brings. It remains, all these years later, a resounding and major work of fiction.
Try these stories. Read them one at a time, one a day. They may touch you strangely, softly; crack you up, or break you in two. You may find yourself paying more consideration to passing strangers or even stumble upon some insight to yourself, so be warned.
However it goes, don't miss Dan Chaon's reading here at Turnrow on Wednesday, August 26. We'll ring out summer with his visit and ask him to draw the winning entry in our short story summer contest. You'll still be eligible to win a bundle of short story collections by reserving a signed copy.