Plenty Worth Saying, With Very Few Words
Kevin Moffett’s Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events is one of the most delightful collections in recent memory.
One of the worst insults you can hear, especially if you’re in the business of writing and editing, is the moment when someone says of you, “She’ll use ten words when two will suffice.” We can praise the long-form novel all we want, and will happily hand over cash for the print and digital versions of literary doorstoppers like The Art of Fielding, Freedom, and their similarly hefty brethren. But when it comes to straight-up storytelling, there is simply nothing better than the brisk, tart delivery of a fresh short story. The author who can cut straight to the heart of things, yet deliver brutal punches with a sharp, witty mood, makes us sit up straight no matter what our attention span. Lucky for us, Kevin Moffett is one of those writers—brisk, funny, whip smart, and worth forming a habit for.
Moffett’s collection of stories, Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events, is one of the most delightful collections in recent memory, yet even without his snappy title and plethora of back-of-jacket praise—Richard Russo, Sam Lipsyte, Alice Sebold, and Chris Adrian, not too shabby—Moffett’s material has not an ounce of excess. Each of these nine stories goes down easy, and the title story is a perfect trifle of anxiety and admiration. When Frederick Moxley discovers that his father has also become a writer, he goes into a tailspin of despair—especially after he discovers that his father is publishing under his name. The details that help build his breakdown are not invented; they are the real dilemmas that come with trying to be a working writer in an impossibly indifferent world. “If the story was awful, I could easily have endured it. . . . But the story wasn’t awful. Not by a long shot.” The hilarity comes out of the predicament, but naturalistically, like the fat floating to the top of a well-made chicken soup. It becomes even more delicious when Frederick’s girlfriend praises his father’s work: “It’s executed as vigorously as it’s conceived. It isn’t false or pretentious. It doesn’t jerk the reader around to no effect. It lives by its own logic. It’s poignant without trying too hard.” She may as well be talking about Moffett’s own work—unadorned, because it needs nothing extra to taste this good.
Not a single line in these stories feels overly slick or produced—it’s as though one might have been transported back to the days of John Cheever, where you could tell a good yarn just as it fell out. Good stories simply don’t need much flourish—in “Buzzers,” the death of a family’s patriarch resonates through the tiny details of displacement (a stray fleck of glitter, the photographs that let you know that you’ve accidentally broken into the house next door.) “In the Pines” is one elderly woman’s story of longing—not for the kind of companionship we’re used to seeing in elderly narratives (no On Golden Pond here), but instead the lusty bravado that could conjure up a Union soldier to while away the afternoons with a glass of iced tea. The flavor this imagined beau gives to the woman’s life is made clear in those things she plans to say upon seeing him once more: “She came up with about a dozen different throwaway greetings: Come aboard; Hark; It’s about time; You look thirsty; Hello again; How’s the war; Don’t hurt me, I’m unarmed…” The atmospheric elements in Moffett’s stories aren’t smeared over the top of the plot like frosting; instead they emerge naturally from the desires and doubts of their characters. The newly married couple in “First Marriage” is haunted by a rank odor along the route of their honeymoon trip, and the immigrant teenager Maxim in “Border to Border” must come to an important life decision: is he the type of person who’d be willing to fish a crown out of one’s own excrement? Conundrums to ponder, to laugh at, and to pity are peppered throughout Moffett’s world.
Moffett knows the power of the few, right words placed in the perfect order, and even when he wants to tug at the reader’s sympathies, as he does to great effect in the final stories, it’s a mournful rather than saccharine manipulation of tone. We get glimpses of the lonely single father desperate to connect with his daughter, the sorrow-laden young woman wandering the streets of desolate suburbia, and the bond formed in solitude between a man and a few pet parrots. Yet even when Moffett falls on a character we might, briefly, recognize as John D. Rockefeller, he never takes the reader’s sympathies for granted. As “John D.” prepares to meet his maker, he quietly savors a piece of gum, mulling over all the times in years prior that he would’ve nursed a single sweet so it could last as long as possible. “Now, pinned beneath blankets in the plane, which has begun moving, he wonders what he was saving it for, what squirrel impulse made the idea of eating the candy outrageous. In the cab of the plane, John D. feels something like impatience. He chews the gun, which hasn’t yet lost its flavor, with more and more fervor.”
It’s rare to see as bright a star as Kevin Moffett on the literary scene. With this lovely collection, he is one to watch—can’t wait for his novel. May it be as brief, concise, and delightful as his short stories are.