Sample Book Reviews

Big Changes
Robin Black

Naked Summer
Andrew Scott
Press 53
158 pages; paper, $14.95

In the title story of Naked Summer, Andrew Scott’s debut collection, a female character is described as someone who can “only imagine changing her life in big ways.” The observation, a disparaging one, comes just as the woman is poised to drive out of Indiana and out of the narrative, never to return. Within the scheme of Naked Summer, this double exit makes a great deal of sense. There is little room in these tales for people seeking big changes to their lives, and, if one is to believe this collection, little room in Indiana itself. Scott’s considerable talents are, instead, largely directed toward a population afraid of change, a population that believes or perhaps unknowingly assumes that big changes are usually for the worse. His protagonists are often caught in the argument between restlessness and resignation, and, for the most part, resignation carries the day. The wonder of these stories is that despite this fact they are engaging and even both illogically and convincingly optimistic.

“The day my life changed forever, and not for the better, a tornado watch loomed over us like sad thoughts.” So begins the third story in the book, “Tornado Light,” which chronicles the final throes of a marriage shattered under the weight of a child’s special needs. Very often, as in “Tornado Light,” the looming, feared change haunting the tale is the end of a relationship between a man and a woman. Of nine stories in the book, seven are centrally concerned with the staying power of a romantic and/or sexual and/or marital relationship. And in most of these, the woman is the party in control, the man the more passive member of the pair. That sounds like a hefty dose of similarity, but in fact there is no cumbersome sameness to the pieces. Rather, as Scott worries the problems of restlessness and resignation, the question of whether the notion of settling must inevitably carry the implication of giving up, he also presents the issues in fresh enough contexts and from different enough angles that the cumulative effect is that of a thorough examination rather than of anything reworked.

“Scott writes with a rare synthesis of sensitivity, even delicacy, and matter-of-fact bluntness.”

The stories all take place in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, and a reader has the sense of being taken on a tour of sorts through a town, or maybe a region. There’s a leisurely pace to the book that suggests ambling with the author down streets, out on country walks. Short stories in general are often structured around particular incidents. “It’s about the time that this guy…” and so on. Special days. Peculiar occasions. While some of Scott’s stories fall into that category, most of them have—in keeping with the overarching worry about what it takes and what it means to put together a decent life—the quality of being lifted almost randomly from someone’s day-to-day existence. A man goes to get a haircut. Another man acquires and loses a girlfriend while dealing with a friend’s suicide and the question of whether he’s being paid enough at work. These are not plot-heavy pieces, and indeed a couple of them, had I read them outside the collection, might have seemed a little under-realized to me, stories with premises richer and more promising than the completed whole. But Scott has assembled a collection in which the linkages of place and theme make even these few slighter works play a critical role, and the collage of all nine stories is powerful in a quiet and blessedly un-flashy way.

The three stand-outs, for me, are “All That Water,” “Lost Lake” and the title work, “Naked Summer,” and in these three pieces, Scott writes with a rare synthesis of sensitivity, even delicacy, and matter-of-fact bluntness. It’s a tremendously effective and affecting combination. These are the works of a writer who knows of what he writes, whether that is the dynamic between workers at a golf course with hinky employment practices or the heartache of a man whose wife of many years has told him that she’s done. And shining through, along with that knowledge, is enough compassion in these tales to make them genuinely sweet. Not saccharine sweet, not overly sweet, but sweet in a way that includes the reader in Scott’s evident affection for his own characters. There is nothing jaded or ironic going on in Naked Summer—just some wisdom, some excellent observations and some earnestness, some humor along the way, all backed up with skilled, thoughtful writing.

Another excellent piece, “The Hypnotist,” is a bit of an outlier and, in the best tradition of such oddballs in collections, presents the central concerns of the rest of the book in an unexpected, but no less powerful context. In “The Hypnotist,” a brother and sister who have survived the car accident that killed their parents, go to watch a hypnotist perform. The accident itself left the brother in a wheelchair and the sister experiencing the kind of trauma that leads her to wonder if all serious damage must be physical. At the hypnotist’s show, the boy volunteers to be a subject and while in a hypnotic trance, against all odds, takes a few steps. This is where the story really takes off, because the sister’s reaction to this is both unexpected and emotionally logical, as she struggles with the specter of being able to undo a terrible change that has already occurred. Again, this question of change, this sense that it is overwhelmingly likely to be negative if it comes, emerges, though in an entirely new way, so while the setting, the hypnotist’s act, livens the book up with its oddness, the tone and emotions of the piece deepen the collection as a whole.

I first became aware of Andrew Scott in the context of Andrew’s Book Club, a website through which he offered monthly support to other people’s newly published short story collections (including, I should make clear, my own). His goal was to be part of the solution in keeping the form alive and published and read, and he has done an awful lot of good. But as much as he accomplished as champion of the form, he has done even more by putting his ink where his heart is and contributing this quite beautiful, quite powerful book to the shelf on which favorite short story collections live.

Robin Black’s debut collection If I loved you, I would tell you this (2010) was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and deemed a Best Book of 2010 by The Irish Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently completing her first novel.


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