BOOK REVIEW / Dispatches from a re-drawn western front: Cowboys, Indians and commuters: The Penguin Book of New American Voices: ed Jay McInerney, Viking pounds 16

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE IS a colloquial simplicity at the heart of the American short story, and its urgency casts a spell, transforming a host of moderately talented writers (such as Ernest Hemingway or Ann Beattie) into icons of pure masculinity or matchless sophistication. Is that old Yank magic under threat? You might think so after reading this selection. Devoted to stories by writers whose careers began in the 1990s, it betrays the ravages of political correctness, namely a peculiar loss of concreteness in the language, which is an odd thing to find in a book dedicated to the memory of Raymond Carver.

Jay McInerney's anthology boasts its own dirty realism, however. In what may be seen as a backlash against the elitism of Donald Barthelme and other postmodern miniaturists, the stories in this collection focus on the burgeoning American underclass, with its drug culture and violence. As a result, the writing has a grungy tone, emphasising the lives of people who are slumming it.

The range of talent is diverse, including not only stories from the Deep South and the Wild West but also Afro-American and Chicano fiction. Lesbian and gay literature is well represented too, with Dale Peck's extremely detailed S/M love story and Dorothy Allison's 'River of Names', about a poor white lesbian who, prompted by a remark of her lover's, begins to catalogue the disasters that have struck her family: 'In one year I lost eight cousins. It was the year everybody ran away. Four disappeared and were never found. One fell in the river and was drowned. One was run down hitchhiking north. One was shot running through the woods, while Grace, the last one, tried to walk from Greenville to Greer for some reason nobody knew. She fell off the overpass a mile down from the Sears, Roebuck warehouse and lay there for hunger and heat and dying.'

So much for the American dream, you might think, and you'd be right, because the one thing McInerney's cowboys, indians and commuters have in common is first-hand experience of a contemporary nightmare. In a Charles D'Ambrosio story, a dying girl and her unwashed companion drive across America, bleakly visiting Mount Rushmore, Little Big Horn and other tourist sights, savouring their country's bygone aspirations to freedom which survive only in the names of the ghost towns: Hope, Wisdom, Independence.

In 'Cowboys Are My Weakness' Pam Houston celebrates and undermines the myths of the American West, whose landscape is also evoked playfully in 'The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven' by Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur D'Alene Indian. As for the commuters, they show up in various urban chronicles not so much of relationships as of random collisions. The stylistic flourishes of Gail Donohue Storey, a thrilling storyteller (and former pupil of Barthelme), may verge on self-parody, but she makes up for it with an elusiveness that matches Barthelme's own.

Elsewhere, Jeff Eugenides explores irreconcilable misunderstandings in a meticulous comedy, and the heroine of Donna Tartt's 'Sleepytown' overdoses on codeine cough syrup after reading Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.

And yet, for all the variety of accents and idioms in this volume, there is a worrying sameness to much of the material, a dazed fugginess that is nowhere more evident than in the final sentence of McInerney's preamble: 'One of the best things we can say about the Great American Short Story toward the end of the century is that anything goes - even that there is no such beast.'