It took me several weeks to finish Al Sim’s most recent collection–Stories in the Old Style–but before you conclude that I didn’t enjoy it, let me explain.
I, too, wondered why I had taken so long to finish reading these stories that–if asked casually, “Did you like them?”–I would have unequivocally said were wonderful. And so I sat down, post-read, to critically examine both the individual stories and the collection as a whole, both of which I concluded “worked” in the mysterious and illogical way of good fiction. In revisiting them, though, I realized how deliciously self-contained each story is–so complete within itself, that I needed to sit with the just-finished story a while, before moving on to another. I wanted to enjoy the resonance of the last word, and so had trouble immediately opening my reader’s heart to the next story in line. “Better to set the book down and think on those perfect final words for a bit”–or so my reader’s heart might have said.
But, now…if the brain could just make a logical interjection…
I think that this need-to-stop-reading is actually a testament to the strength of Sim’s collection. In fact, during a class on ordering and assembling a story collection, Peter Ho Davies said that a collection should be read in just such a way. He suggested that each story be savored and granted a full stop at the end so that the reader might fully enjoy the final enduring image and keep thinking about the story long after the last words are read.
And now, another country heard from: the stomach.
For some (entirely strange and personal) reason, I often equate a good read to good food. I consume them both, relish them both, and leave both feeling satisfied when the chef or author has done his job well. And in the case of Al Sim’s collection, his 18 stories were like a box of fine chocolates. (Yes, I’m aware that Forrest Gump has forever ruined that analogy…) But consider for a moment the fact that one really well made chocolate can be enough to satisfy even the most stubborn sweet tooth. Two-at-a-time can be eaten, yes–with somewhat diminished enjoyment–but three? Well, that definitely feels like overindulgence.
And since you are too polite to ask but nonetheless curious, my very favorite bon-bons were: Two Head Gone, a story of human helplessness in the face of ordinary but devastating loss; The Freedom Pig, in which a runaway slave and his master’s pig conspire to reach the promised land; Get the Can, a lovely, lyrical short-short that uses a childhood game of one-up to show that all things are possible; and especially Fetch, an emotionally packed short-short that ripped my heart out and left it bleeding in the snow at the edge of the frozen lake.
No stranger to publication, Sim’s stories have previously appeared in such vaunted journals as Glimmer Train, Antietam Review, Crab Creek Review, North Atlantic Review, Fourteen Hills, The Literary Review, Red Cedar Review, and New Millennium Writings. And his choice of title? Well, Sim titled his collection spot-on, in my view, because his stories truly are written in the “old style.” They hearken back to such various influences as the surprise endings of O. Henry, the grit and realism of John Steinbeck and the barely contained wildness of Jack London.
As a group, or stand alone, Sim’s stories are spare and brutally beautiful.