Fiction writers are often told by agents, editors, and even fellow writers that contemporary readers are not interested in short story collections, and that if one intends to write stories and assemble them into a book, they must be linked and resemble a novel. What is lost in this stampede towards the novel-in-stories is breadth. The great short story writers demonstrate range—exploring themes through an array of characters from a multitude of backgrounds, ethnicities, social classes, and education levels without having to grasp the handrails of a unifying narrative throughline.
Amina Gautier is fast becoming one of those great short story writers. Her first collection about troubled teens, entitled At-Risk, won the Flannery O’Connor Award. Now We Will Be Happy, a collection about the lives of Afro-Puerto Ricans, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. And now, Gautier returns with The Loss of All Lost Things, the winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Award. The most impressive aspect about the collection is not its theme, or the deftness with which it’s handled—it’s Gautier’s range.
Each story in the collection, as its title indicates, deals with loss. In “Lost and Found,” a boy is abducted and slowly realizes the peril he’s in. “As I Wander” tells the story of a grieving widow, who meanders the neighborhood and unexpectedly finds companionship with a young man. The story “Resident Lover” stars a writer whose wife has just left him, and he hopes an artist residency will help him find romance. In the following passage, he admits to a love interest that he never thought much of his ex-wife’s poetry, a confession that reveals that Ray may not have seen his wife’s unspoken longing for children.
He’d told her with silence instead. Was that when it began to go badly for them, Ray wondered. Or had it been all the children? As if it were yesterday, he remembered when all of the children started coming. Out of the blue, they began popping up in her poems. Soon every poem she showed him was about some kind of child. He couldn’t understand her need to focus on these smarmy children. They had no children themselves; his wife did not want them, did not even like them.
The absence of a child also looms large in the story “Cicero Waiting.” A Ph.D candidate immerses himself in work to anesthetize the pain of losing his three year-old girl in a Target. His marriage seems irreparably damaged, but one night, his wife asks him to stop grading papers and come to bed. As he considers his decision, the beautiful, plainspoken final line of the story is: “They would be there tomorrow, but this night might never come again.”
Gautier’s prose doesn’t call attention to itself. She has an infallible ear for the language of our times; her characters speak and think like people we know. While the stories aren’t filled with linguistic surprises, the characters navigate their losses in surprising ways. For example, in “What Matters Most,” a recently divorced mother describes the unsettling nature of her teenaged daughter’s transformation following the divorce. But then she reveals that she blames herself for the surprisingly foolish logic behind her and her ex-husband’s decision to send their daughter to boarding school.
After last year’s winter break, Brooke decided to become a vegetarian and join an animal rights group. She came home in the dead of a snowy New York winter wearing canvas sneakers and a cotton jacket because she decided that since she no longer ate animals she shouldn’t wear them either. You put up with these changes because it is the only way to keep her and because you sense that these rebellions are directed at yourself. You accept the blame because you and your ex-husband agreed that it wouldn’t be fair for only one of you to keep Brooke while you hammered out the terms of your divorce and the custody terms and that it would prevent one parent from unfairly hogging her if you sent her to Lyman-Sankey, a boarding school in western Massachusetts, and split the costs.
Even when the construct of one of Gautier’s stories borders on cliché, as in “Intersections,” in which a white married professor becomes romantically involved with one of his black graduate students, there are surprising lines of dialogue that elevate the all-too-familiar premise. For example, in this passage, the professor’s wife has a unique way of telling her husband that she knows exactly what’s going on in their marriage, even if he doesn’t.
“Do you think I can’t see it?” she asked. “You’re leaving me.” Margaret said. “And you don’t even notice.”
In this highly accomplished collection, Gautier throws the entire creative writer’s toolkit at everyday people and the many unexpected ways they experience and cope with loss. The Loss of All Lost Things is a book that shows that if contemporary readers are truly uninterested in collections of unlinked stories, then they are missing out on a range of rewards.