In "Convertible," Erdrich takes stories for another spin
Louise Erdrich's story collection "Red Convertible" should make converts: A retrospective of Erdrich's fiction emphasizes her gifts as a short-story writer.
Seattle Times book critic
"The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978-2008"
by Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins, 496 pp., $27.99
When Louise Erdrich published her book of linked stories, "Love Medicine," in 1984, it was a bit like watching a meteor streak in from the Dakotas. The tales were terse, tough and as strange as life itself. Here, one felt, was a major writer emerging fully formed.
"Love Medicine" went on, deservedly, to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction that year.
Since then, Erdrich has shown a natural gift for the short story, but sometimes dilutes that gift with her attempts to shoehorn her tales into novel-length narratives where multiple voices contend for attention. And the complex genealogy behind her books — generation after generation of child-producing marriage, remarriage and adultery — can make your head spin.
Erdrich's full-length books about Native American and European immigrant life in the Upper Midwest often originated as short stories that worked on their own terms. So why not leave them that way?
That's just what she's done in her new retrospective, "The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978-2008." Although most of its contents have appeared in her novels, they're served up here as originally conceived and written. And while the tales from "Love Medicine" still stand out as something unusual in her canon, many of the later stories are almost as canny in their intelligence and power.
"Saint Marie," from "Love Medicine," remains the stunner from that striking volume of tales. It's narrated by a mixed-blood Indian who has "the mail-order Catholic soul you get in a girl raised out in the bush, whose only thought is getting into town." Her showdown with an intimidating nun at the Catholic school where she's a boarder triggers ambitions for sainthood in her — but with a twist. She seeks beatification so she can get to Heaven first ... and keep Sister Leopolda out.
The books that immediately followed "Love Medicine" — "The Beet Queen," "Tracks" and "The Bingo Palace" — revisited Erdrich's chosen territory: Indian-vs.-White contacts and contentions; booze-, sex- and jealousy-driven bad behavior. But they introduced some wry humor to the proceedings.
Still, it wasn't until later in her career that Erdrich hit her full stride again. "Best Western" (from the '90s) is a rueful tale about husband-and-wife lounge entertainers who hit a rough patch on the road, thanks in part to the husband's acute sensitivity to hotel noise. "The Crest," about a contractor going berserk as his marriage breaks up, also finds high drama in the economic pressures on farmland as it's eaten up by boomtown suburbs.
"History of the Puyats," one of Erdrich's fine historical tales, offers a scorched-earth take on family heritage and differs slightly, for the better, from the version later incorporated in Erdrich's National Book Award finalist, "The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse." "Le Mooz" (a fantastical slapstick farce about a showdown between an old married couple and a moose) and "Naked Woman Playing Chopin" (about a nun taking an unusual escape route from convent life) also later appeared in "Last Report." Again, small differences in their openings make these earlier versions more enticing.
The half dozen previously uncollected stories in "Convertible" confirm Erdrich still has her short-fiction chops. "The Fat Man's Race" is a kicky little folktale that blends rumor, murder, diabolic possession, dream sex and family happiness all in three pages. "Beauty Stolen from Another World" is unlike anything else Erdrich has written, with its London setting (in its opening) and its dispassionate take on love, addiction and distrust.
Both hint at good and unexpected things still to come from this talented writer.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company