Acclaimed Maine artist Linden Frederick’s oil paintings have been referred to as “stage sets” of small-town America, and as such, storytellers have always been drawn to his work, he says.
To honor that connection, Frederick invited 15 literary authors to “illustrate” his realist work in an effort to “invert the tradition of art illustrating fiction,” he explains in the introduction to his recently released “Night Stories.”
Nine years in the making, “Night Stories” does just that. The impressive roster of writers, many with Maine ties, each selected one of Frederick’s evocative paintings and used it to inspire a short story or script. Such a collection of fiction is a significant anthology in itself, but matched with Frederick’s small-town scenes the stories take on a dimension deeper than would seem possible in a matter of a few pages. Frederick’s everyday homes, shops and landscapes at dusk or in the dark, lit from within, by neon or by a streetlight, are like skillful snapshots, and the stories are slivers of life; the pairings show there’s much more to both than seen at first glance.
“Save-A-Lot” by Anthony Doerr (“All the Light We Cannot See”) is about a young mother who means well, her daughter Hanako, their widowed 70-year-old landlord and a raccoon. The mother becomes addicted to opiates after a work injury and loses the bright life she worked so hard to create for her and her daughter. The raccoon brings the landlord and daughter together. “Who knows what the girl sees and doesn’t see about her mother? Alfred remembers what his days were like before the raccoon brought Hanako into his life. Oatmeal alone at the table, dishes alone at the sink. Wake alone, eat alone, work alone.” It is a sweet story, compassionate and hopeful.
In Tess Gerritsen’s (“Rizzoli and Isles” series) masterfully simple “Take Out,” a well-to-do, middle-aged man revisits his past in a diner after “decades of chasing the sun.” He asks the familiar, congenial young waitress, “Why do you stay here when there’s so much more out there in the world?” She says, “Everything I want is right here.” He asks how she knows that. “How does anyone know? Sometimes you just do.” He thinks fleetingly about what it is he knows about what he has missed, and then he leaves again.
If Frederick’s paintings put you face to face with the familiar, your old neighborhood or a familiar intersection, so do the stories, even down to local weather. The magnificent Andre Dubus III (“House of Sand and Fog”) in “Ice,” offers this: “It was late afternoon and snowing again, and they already had a foot on the ground, and all winter long Dicky had been bitching about having to shovel the walk in front of the store practically every damn day since Thanksgiving.” Dicky is the down-on-his-luck owner of a corner store, who lives above it with his 27-year-old son and his wife, the main character. A customer, ill and looking for Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, awakens long dormant emotions in her.
Secrets, angst, resilience, unfulfilled dreams and hope are all there, provoked and evoked in this beautifully presented book. If you didn’t know, you’d be wondering which came first, the painting or the story, and just who is illustrating whom.
Amy Canfield is a writer, editor and bibliophile who lives in South Portland with this book on her coffee table.