Little Raw Souls by Steven Schwartz

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The stories in Little Raw Souls represent a triumphant second act in the life of American writer Steven Schwartz. After publishing a pair of critically lauded novels in the 90s (Therapy and The Good Doctor’s Son), Schwartz disappeared from the shelves for over a decade. Possibly, like a number of midlist authors, he received the kind of bad news his character Ben receives in the poignant “Galisteo Street”:

One day his agent sent him a fax. She was interested in “developing emerging writers” now, and although she knew it would be a blow to him, and she admittedly didn’t have the guts to tell him over the phone, especially given that his latest efforts had come to naught, she thought it best to be candid. Emerging writers. Those hot, young virgins with their sexy purring prose that passed as edgy literary work.

“Frankly,” the agent’s fax had continued (growing more apologetic by the line, expiating her guilt over their twenty-five years of working together), she could only sell genre work or multicultural writing or first novelists, the “emerging writers.” Cookbooks were also good. “I’m so sorry Ben.”

Or perhaps there’s no resemblance at all. Schwartz’s characters are drawn so deftly and believably in Little Raw Souls that each of them, regardless of their professions (and some, like the author, are writers and teachers), feels as real as all the others. We’re invested in all of their stories. We can’t help but be.

Of course this is not to say that the stories succeed because the characters are likeable, quite. But to know all is to forgive all. We are presented with such recognizable people in Little Raw Souls, and their dilemmas are drawn so distinctly and unsparingly, that we inevitably feel empathetic. No, likeable characters do not necessarily make for good fiction, but fully rounded characters (full because fully imagined) can make for moving, renewing fiction. The stories themselves are dramatic but plausible: a potential Marine Corps recruit is sexually assaulted by his recruiter’s daughter, a retired geology professor begins an affair, a young boy in the 1960s is interviewed by the FBI in regards to his possible involvement in domestic terrorism.

In the aforementioned “Galisteo Street,” the fact that Ben is a writer, or a former writer, is of secondary importance. Writing was the career he gave up his infant child to pursue, but what matters now is that, with his career evaporated, he wants that child back, and he can’t have her. Years ago, waiting tables in Santa Fe, Ben had an extended fling with Marilyn, daughter of an unnamed literary celebrity. It was fun while it lasted. In spare but suggestive strokes, her drug addiction and kleptomania are revealed to the reader, so that when she and Ben conceive a daughter, we readily agree that the sensible thing seems to be to give the baby up for adoption. “He signed away all rights, afraid of the responsibility, wary of Marilyn’s reckless ways, and encouraged by his parents who said it would tie him down for the rest of his life.”

As was bound to happen, Ben ends things with Marilyn, who spirals downhill and dies of her own excesses. It’s impossible to say how much that spiral was aggravated by the memoir Ben published about their time together, but the book took a toll on Ben as well. Badly reviewed, it was the last that he published.

As the story proper begins, Ben sets down the telephone, having just heard that Lydia—the daughter he abandoned, whom he’d met only once—has had a baby of her own. As she won’t talk with him on the phone, Ben and his wife Sunny drive down to Santa Fe, where Lydia still lives, to try to insinuate themselves into her life and the life of her new child. He tries to get in touch through a mutual friend, he gets his patient wife to call, he stops by the house. Finally, he comes back to his hotel, where she and the baby have been waiting for him. Things do not go as planned.

I am not an easy mark, rarely given to strong emotion when reading (most of the time, emotion isn’t what I’m reading for anyway) but I was surprised to find myself tearing up at Ben’s sadness and desperation toward the end of “Galisteo Street.” This was all the more alarming as I tended to start most of these stories with the same thought: “Why in heaven’s name would I want to read about such unambitious, run-of-the-mill people as Francis, Meredith, and Connie—don’t I know everything about them already?” More the fool I.

Steven Schwartz

Steven Schwartz

A more seemingly legitimate question: Why would I want to read about such a person told in prose that doesn’t leap off the page? There are no fireworks in Schwartz’s language. Indeed, I remember everything that happens in Little Raw Souls, but I remember few specific sentences. Still, perhaps this subtlety is to his advantage. Take a scene from “Stranger.” Elaine, waiting for a flight home from Philadelphia after burying her father, nods off for a moment and is relieved of her wallet by a man who, to pass the theft off as a casual maneuver at the crowded boarding gate, kisses her connubially on the cheek. Drained, embarrassed, and still reeling from her father’s death, Elaine uses some free vouchers from the airline to buy a glass of wine at an airport bar. There she’s approached by a stranger. He asks her if her flight is delayed.

Elaine placed her wine back on the cocktail napkin. “Yes,” she said, and left it at that. It had been a long time since anyone had tried to pick her up. She was forty-six and although she did not feel old, she didn’t think men noticed her anymore, not in that way. Her figure was still good, trim. But it was her “figure,” no longer her “body,” and she was trim, not hot.

Nothing about this prose stands out at first, and yet it smoothly conveys the inner life of its subject with room-temperature objectivity. You’re not reading Schwartz, you’re reading Elaine. But do note how the second, third, and forth sentences share a structural rhythm—the clauses nicely varied: four, two, three. Note also the inexplicit “not in that way,” and “left it at that.” We’re told without being told. We’re trusted.

Elaine is married of course. But just this once she might flirt back—because everything’s so up-in-the-air right now, and because she needs the comfort, and because people, famously, as Schwartz well knows, are not consistently themselves.

Some of the excitement of my reading came from anticipating a wrong move—Surely at some point, Schwartz would overstay his welcome, veer sentimental. It never, ever happens. Ben, in “Galisteo Street,” does not suddenly begin to write again. That part of his life we were told was finished is, in fact, finished. Elaine’s barroom companion, thank god, never turns out to be the man who robbed her, as he would have in a cheaper story. And when the moment arrives to consummate their liaison, nothing that you expect to happen happens, and it feels exactly right, exactly like life.

There is derisive talk among literati of the prevalence of the “workshop story,” a genre defined by Writer’s Digest as  one that’s “solidly built, carefully constructed, and follows all of the guidelines of a quality story: fully realized characters, an abundance of scene, strong sense of place, conflict where something of importance is at stake, description and imagery.” From this description, of course, it sounds harmless enough, but at no literary gathering will the phrase “workshop story” be one of approbation. And yet. In the hands of a writer as talented and sensitive as Schwartz, flashy language and exotic vistas turn out not to be necessary. Solid construction can be seen for once as the real marvel of physics that it is. And the “conflict where something of importance is at stake” can seem like the only thing worth caring about.

Do we really want Connor’s mother to sign that enlistment authorization in “Absolute Zero”? And will she? Does anything of a sexual nature transpire between David and Miles, formerly Mimi, his transgendered cousin, in “Seeing Miles,” and do we want it to? The answers are surprising, and the stories ring true.

John Cotter is the author of Under the Small Lights, a novel, and executive editor at Open Letters Monthly. More from this author →