Thursday, June 15, 2017

Book Review: "The Rope Swing: Stories" by Jonathan Corcoran

I've become such an enormous fan of short stories over the years. They allow talented authors to develop a world in miniature, to quickly draw you into a story and endear their characters to you, and tie everything up (or leave it purposely ambiguous), all in the span of a relatively small number of pages. They can experiment with different narrative styles or themes, or link their stories around a particular set of characters, setting, and/or time period. When it all works, short stories can be breathtaking, sometimes even more than a full-length novel.

A number of the stories in Jonathan Corcoran's collection, The Rope Swing, reached that level for me. The characters in these stories are at a pivotal moment in their lives—the railroad for which their once-successful town was known has taken its last ride, they must make a critical decision about a relationship, they're faced with grief, uncertainty, bitterness, and pain. Each of the stories is either based in a small West Virginia town, or the characters have their roots there, and many of the characters overlap in several of the stories.

My favorites in this 10-story collection included: "Corporeal," in which a relatively sheltered teenager must confront her father's suicide, and decides this is the moment to start bucking her mother's overprotectiveness; "Pauly's Girl," about a woman trying to find her way after her platonic life partner has died; "Felicitations," which tells of a genetic counselor in rural West Virginia facing some critical decisions of her own; "Appalachian Swan Song," about a once-booming town watching the very end of its railroad; "Through the Still Hours," in which one-half of a gay couple tries to figure out why his relationship no longer satisfies him any longer, and what he should do; and my absolute favorite, the title story, about two young men on the cusp of admitting their secrets to one another, but one is unsure of what taking that first (or last) step could mean.

I found this collection when I saw it had been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. (I found this somewhat ironic because I think there were fewer gay-related stories in here than anything else, but I could have lost count.) Corcoran is really a fantastic storyteller. It's amazing how he can imbue his stories with such powerful emotions in such a small number of pages, and how he makes you feel them just as strongly as his characters do. Only one or two stories didn't work for me, and it wasn't that they weren't well-written, but rather that I just didn't feel as immersed in those as I did the others.

I've had conversations with a number of Goodreads friends as to why they love short stories, or why they don't appeal to them. I can definitely say up until about 15-16 years ago I definitely was in the latter camp, but now I am hooked. There is so much talent out there writing beautiful stories, so if you're willing to give it a try, The Rope Swing may be a great way to ease you in.

Me? I'll be waiting for the next step in Corcoran's career.

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