The Strop Weekly Roundup

Weekly Roundup: 6 Short Stories to Add to the Top of Your To-Read List

The Strop is a place to whet your appetite for damn good stories. Check back every Friday for our latest recommendations.

1. “Wampum” by Samantha Hunt

“Wampum” is one of those stories that gives me new complications with each return. Coming from Hunt’s 2017 collection The Dark Dark, “Wampum” is a story written with two potentials. How one reads the piece determines the theme, power dynamic, reliability of the narrator, and who the narrator is. The story is told by either a sexual predator preying on a young girl, or the girl in question, exploring her sexual power and agency to confront and control a man who would take advantage of her. The way Hunt positions point of view to take full advantage of her third-person narration allows for character details to be revealed in such a way that either character would have access to the information on display. Still, her narrator isn’t distant. There is a consistency of voice throughout, developing a subjective narrator that, as one struggles to piece apart who has control of the narrative, weaves a careful tension with the layered power dynamics of the main characters’ interactions. There is danger at play, and part of the reading demands self-examination. How much agency do you extend to the girl? Where do you take it away? Why? It is not a comfortable piece to read, and in that discomfort, there are implications for the voyeuristic nature of the reader, and how a character’s power can rely on and be defined by what a reader brings to the page. The Dark Dark is full of stories like this one that challenge the reader’s biases concerning the character’s agency. The collection is more than worth the read for the way Hunt manipulates the uncanny to complicate her prose. – Daniel Mazzacane

2. “Bad Habits” by Fenton Johnson 

Nick, a gay tobacco farmer, runs a tying crew on his farm that includes his “occasional back-lot lover,” Paul Carter, a man who was briefly engaged to Nick’s older sister, Frances. Frances wants to sell the farm so Nick can move on from their father’s legacy, and Paul Carter. What can easily be framed as a fraught love triangle becomes more complex, seeing Nick squaring with his sexuality — a topic only kept in the closet by his and Frances’ unwillingness to talk — and the titular bad habits he, and the rest of the characters, repeatedly commit that keep them together. Johnson’s prose is methodical, taking its time with scenery, the small moments of high tension between Nick and Paul, and Nick’s gentle arc toward repetition and the thing he wants most, “a vision of himself, Nick Handley, a man without wanting and so without weakness, a man in control of his life, a man of power in the lives of those he wounds.” Even as he rails against his sister, his limitations, and Paul Carter, he returns to Paul’s house, and the familiar cycle of closeness. – Daniel Mazzacane

3. “55 Miles To The Gas Pump” by Annie Proulx 

Usually when I think of Proulx, I think of her 60-page short stories, or the over-700-page behemoth that is Barkskins, sitting on my dresser, taunting me for my personal failings. But she has also written what is my favorite flash fiction story to date. “55 Miles To The Gas Pump” comes from Proulx’ 1999 collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, and is only three sentences long. Two of those sentences are paragraph length, but, still, three sentences. “55 Miles To The Gas Pump” tells the story of a couple who live in the middle of nowhere: Rancher Croom, who kills himself in the first sentence, and his wife, Mrs. Croom, who finds her husband’s long-kept secret in the second. It’s not the most complex plot in the collection, but the way Proulx manipulates language to mimic thought, slowly layering realization after realization with each comma, is enough to warrant several reads just to find all the details in her clauses. – Daniel Mazzacane

4. “Chef’s House” by Raymond Carver

It feels almost criminal that I made it through my undergrad without once reading Raymond Carver, because he’s probably the most innovative short story writer that I’ve come across. “Chef’s House” in particular is a story that I cannot stop coming back to. The first two pages carefully scatter details: we have Wes, his alcoholism, and his ex-wife, who — wearing their wedding ring again — is giving him one last chance to pursue sobriety in their temporarily inherited beachfront home. On page three, Wes loses the house; Chef, the owner, tells him he has to leave soon. The last half of the story, moving into scene, culminates in a moment of dialogue between Wes and his wife that so quietly describes the collapse of a life, a complete loss of hope. It gives me chills every single read. Six pages, and Carver has you fully-acquainted with and weeping for his characters. He’s one of those writers whose stories are so expertly constructed that it just sort of drops your jaw. He builds a seemingly effortless empathy for his protagonists, constructs seemingly shapeless narratives, invites us into the ordinary lives of ordinary people using pared-down, ordinary language — and he makes it all damn beautiful. Read “Chef’s House” in Cathedral. Read anything by Carver. It will change your understanding of what a short story can do. – Josh Oliver

5. “The Engagement” by Stacy Wang

This story has stuck with me for a while. The distance employed, the effort that the main character makes in trying to bridge that distance, the constant failure simply by existing in an unfamiliar world — all of these things are handled so powerfully. The humanity given to a character who we so often see as a stereotype in fiction is of course the strongest hallmark of this story, but the thing that I appreciate is the way that this story exists in an effort to communicate even while acknowledging the impossibility of that communication. And then, to complicate that, the places where this character knows, on an emotional level, things that her daughter would never imagine her knowing: emotions, ownership of self, the many massive-but-held-inside fears of a life and then of the next life happening like yours. This piece takes an incredibly simple moment— the decision about whether to call her daughter — and enfolds an entire relationship around it. – Brandon Williams

6. “Uncle Rock” by Dagoberto Gilb

Dagoberto is an incredible writer, and all his stories are strong, but this one packs so much power into such a tiny space. I particularly love the voiceless nature of the narrator, broken only when he is finally allowed to take some level of autonomy for himself in the end, where the story finally allows him a decision and he takes it without anyone who matters knowing. Much of this story is set in narrative summary, and indeed more than half of the story exists almost as setup for the small scene that eventually takes place, but that setup serves to give the reader so much reason to root for this young narrator as he finally gets his chance to affect the world around him. – Brandon Williams