I've never been much for short stories, either reading them or writing them. I know they're a specialized art form with all sorts of distinctions between them and full length novels, size only being one of the things setting them apart. It's just I can't help feeling a little ripped off when I read them. There doesn't seem enough room for the things that happen to be properly justified and it feels like an author is forcing something to squeeze into a space that its far too big to fit into.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule, even the ones I make up for myself, and there are writers who have such a discerning eye that they can slice a small moment off the bulk of reality and turn it into something special. J. G. Ballard, James Joyce, Sherman Alexi, Jorge Luis Boges, and a few others seem to have the ability to reduce a story down to its barest essentials; distil its essence so that what other authors might take hundreds of page to recount, they can do in five or six.
The first book I ever read by Thomas King was called One Good Story That One, a collection of short stories. Since that time I've not only added him to my list of authors that I keep watch on for a new release, but become addicted to his short fiction. His stories find their targets with an accuracy that those Pentagon folk can only dream about.
Whether pointed comments about the state of affairs for Native peoples, satirical commentary on historical events and current affairs, insights into the workings and failings of relationships, or momentary glimpses into a life in progress King's microscope picks out the particles that others would dismiss as unimportant. Who else but Thomas King would have figured out the tie in between The Indian Act of Canada and Star Trek? I know I'd missed them until he pointed it out in "Where The Borg Are"
Of course the clues are there for those who know how to look, but not all of us have the eye for stuff like that. But than a lot of us don't look up at the sky too much or wander around Bay St. (the financial district in Toronto Ontario Canada) at 3:00 am so we miss seeing the flocks of Indians migrating in the spring and fall. Who knew that the city of Toronto had special workers whose job it was to pick the Indians stunned by flying into the glass towers of the sky scrapers up off the street and make sure they don't wander around the city streets dazed and confused?
Of course the guys are going to miss a couple every so often, which explains why you see the occasional befuddled Indian downtown. They even have a book which helps them identify what kind they are; you can tell by the feathers whether they are Mohawk, Cree, or Ojibwa. Why you can even get the occasional off course Navajo.
Hey, you don't believe me? Well, that Thomas King has written it all down. The title story from his latest collection, A Short History Of Indians In Canada is all about it. Okay sure story tellers will sometimes stretch it a little, but those are both pretty big stretches for there not to be some truth in them.
The next thing you're going to be telling me that what happened in "Coyote and the Enemy Aliens" is made up. Who else but Coyote would have done that job? Rounding up all the Japanese in British Columbia in World War two and taking away their property and businesses? Ain't nobody foolish enough but that Coyote to think that's a good thing to do.
Of course that Thomas King he's a tricky one too. Just when you think you know what kind of story he tells, he stands those stories on their heads and tells one like "The Dog I Wish I Had I Would Call It Helen". It's about the silly way that men can act towards mothers and children by making promises and not keeping them. They don't know what disappointment can do to a person, but that Thomas King sure does and shows us all
That story would make you cry that one would, if it weren't such a brave story that it made you proud. Sometimes that's the way of stories they can make you feel two, maybe three different ways at once. At least the good ones can, and that Thomas King writes good stories; stories that tickle your belly so that you laugh but they also tickle your eyes so that you cry.
That's a hard thing to do laugh and cry at the same time, it must even be harder to write the story that helps you do that. Of course there's the stories that don't do anything but sit there and make you have to think what they're about. Like that one, "Little Bombs", where the wife puts little bombs everywhere around the house for the husband to find, not real big ones that will hurt him of course, just ones that go bang. But when the woman who is not his wife does the same thing and the woman who is his wife finds out, that causes an explosion all right.
That story made me think, all right, just like that one "Fire And Rain" which might be about James Taylor but then again might not. Or how about "Domestic Furies" about a woman and her dreams as seen through the eyes of her son? Well of course all his stories make your think, because that's what good stories do. But some of them have as many twists and turns in them that they could be the path Coyote walks, and others they just sit there waiting for you.
A Short History Of Indians In Canada has some real good stories in it by that Thomas King fellow, and after you finish the stories its not done yet. You can read about Thomas King in a biography at the end, and there is an interview with him too where he talks about story writing and the different ways that he goes about doing it.
With a good storywriter you never know how the stories are going to affect you. Sometimes they can just sort of creep up on you without you even noticing and turn your head just that much so they change your perspective on the world for a short while. Their influence can sneak up and you don't even notice it happening.
Thomas King writes stories like that, and A Short History Of Indians In Canada could have an impact without you even noticing. Tricky things them stories, tricky like that Coyote, but a lot smarter and don't get into as much trouble (well not often anyway).
(Originally published September 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.