Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ann Packer’s stories are novelistic in their probing depth.

I loved Packer’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, and I was persuaded by a friend to try her stories. They are wonderful.

Swim Back to Me

Each of the stories in Swim Back to Me (225 pages, Knopf, $24.95) has a power all its own. Together they tell a lot about the exigencies of family life and the terror of living in intimate relation to other people.

Some of the characters in these stories reappear. In an almost magical coupling, in an early story we see a young family who has moved from Yale to Stanford, after the father was denied tenure at Yale, all hopeful that this new location will bring greater rewards. The struggling professor is seen as a spectacular father, perhaps a little too overbearing at times, but wonderful in more ways than his neighbor, a tenured History professor. The History professor's son Richard goes to school with Sasha, the English professor’s daughter. Richard loves Sasha's father and feels that his own father is withdrawn and distant, working all the time; and they both—father and son—regret the departure of the wife and mother, who simply couldn’t take the academic life—or non-life—anymore.

In the first story we witness a kind of coming of age of Sasha and Richard. There is an intensity between them, but Sasha gets caught up in another crowd, and Richard has to watch from the sidelines. As he does, Sasha’s parents, the ebullient English professor and his thoughtful wife, pull him into their orbit, partly in hopes of prying loose some secrets. But they never do. Richard and Sasha experiment with marijuana, necking, and even a little more; while her parents are none the wiser.

Some of these characters return in a later story, older but not terribly wiser, and it is fascinating to see what Packer has done with them. With a few deft strokes, she makes us understand implicitly what these lives have been like. It’s uncanny, almost spooky, and it reminds me of the some of the best stories in the long American tradition of the short story.

Between these masterpieces are other stunningly moving stories. In one, a woman’s husband doesn’t return home one night. This is her older, wiser, dependable second husband, and at first she is frantic. But then she learns, from his children and his ex-wife, that he does this all the time. He takes a powder for a considerable time and talks about having to get his head together. Needless to say, this is not happy news to the woman who has been married to him for a year, and her process of working out a response to this behavior is what makes the story wonderful.

In another story, a young couple approach the birth of their first child together when they know that the wife has lost an earlier child in an earlier marriage to sudden crib death. Packer takes this simple premise and weaves a powerfully moving story that makes readers think of the powerful feelings associated with childbirth.

There are several other stories too, all as good as these few, and I think anyone who likes reading novels will enjoy the craft with which Ann Packer has constructed these stories.

Ann Packer

Swim Back To Me is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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