Metamorphic moments from master teller of short stories
Each short story in award-winning Maine author Bill Roorbach’s (“Big Bend,” “Life Among Giants”) latest collection, “The Girl of the Lake,” could be a novel. They don’t have to be, though, because such is Roorbach’s talent that he pulls off fully developed characters and plots in a matter of mere pages.
The 10 stories are about people who, willingly or not, find themselves in situations that change their lives. In each, the reader is right there amid the characters’ angst, their sorrows and their joy.
In the particularly cringe-inducing “The Fall,” Jean and Timothy, both 25 and in a two-year relationship, set off on a remote hiking and camping trip. Jean hopes for a romantic respite with Timothy, a cold, competitive, condescending know-it-all. She hikes on eggshells, explaining away to herself his barbs, waiting out his silences. “Jean knew he was thinking and not to interrupt. He’d listen if she said something—but if she did talk, then he wouldn’t say whatever bit of conversation he was brewing up—this was the silence before the talk, and she loved to hear him talk.” She loves him, despite a warning that she’s following in her mother’s path, married to a man she doesn’t love and who doesn’t love her. “It’s misery you’re courting, since that’s all you’ve ever known,” her uncle tells her. The tension in the story is excruciatingly palpable right up to and through the catastrophe that ensues.
A U.S. college student rooms with a tribal prince from central Africa while studying at Oxford in “Dung Beetle.” The clash of their cultures changes them both, and plays out well past their days as flatmates. After decades of silence, the two men meet up again. “We held a long, profound look, staring across the void of multiple marriages, murderous regimes, divorce, imminent elopement, daughters not one’s own.” The bonds of their “pub days” return and, for better or worse, they collude.
Other stories include those of a sad but enthusiastic widower finding a new purpose in summer theater, the somewhat dark story of the first date between a farmer and an Episcopal priest, and a scientist who buys a house in which the previous owners were murdered.
Roorbach’s young characters are especially endearing and finely drawn.
In “Harbinger Hall,” a sixth-grade truant plays war in the woods, crawling on his belly from tree to tree and peering around rocks with his pretend Luger hunting for Nazis. He gets more than he bargained for when he meets a mysterious old gentleman who schools him, through an elaborate game, in the finer points of war, its atrocities and its miseries.
Kiva, a teenager in the story of the same name, moved from Afghanistan to the U.S. with his scientist father, who strictly attempts to shape his education, character and love life. “We were both a little obsessed about the idea of romance,” Kiva says. “The two of us had a really communicative relationship that we were at constant pains to keep fresh and loving around the hole in our lives. I really mean this and really mean everything I say; I’m not an ironic person, never speak in opposites.” And in that fashion he narrates the story of how he tried, heeding his father’s advice, to charm a girl, winding up in a maelstrom of events involving her family.
All of the stories are about life-altering events, and the beauty of Roorbach’s storytelling and writing is that he can present those events so masterfully in a story that spans a day or even a few hours. Life can turn on a dime through a chance meeting or a planned move that has unexpected consequences, and Roorbach masterfully shows us that.
Amy Canfield is a writer, editor and bibliophile. She lives in South Portland.