The standard MO for new writers is to generate a collection of short stories before walking off into the sunset to produce the follow-up novel. The shelf-life of these "career-starter" works is usually brief; the short-fiction, unless resuscitated by other writers in workshops, dies its natural death only to be revived if the author rises to great prominence (in the form or in the art), at which point we can all enjoy their early works in hard-bound, selected glory.
Recently, however, there have been a cluster of debut collections whose authors are set apart from the pack. Instead of squandering their talents with ostentatious displays of the scaffoldings of craft, they have stuck to the fundamental importance of telling a good story.
Patricia Engel's Vida, (Grove Press, 2010), Tiphanie Yanique's How to Leave a Leper Colony (Graywolf Press, 2010), and Jeannine Capo Crucet's How to Leave Hialeah (University of Iowa, 2009), come to mind, as do Paul Yoon's Once The Shore (Sarabande, 2009), Ben Percy's Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press, 2007), and Alan Heathcock's Volt (Graywolf Press, 2011).
Eugene Cross' collection, Fires of Our Choosing (Dzanc Books, March 2012), takes its place among these with a particularly brilliant twist: relentlessly macho characters, a man's idea of men, given life on the page by a writer who understands the vulnerabilities that lie beneath the facade. (Those at AWP, Chicago February 29th - March 4th will have a chance to hear Cross read and pick up a copy of his book at the Dzanc table)
The collection is, by and large, thematically arranged around the environs of Erie, Pennsylvania. In this place people cling not so much to guns and religion but rather to their accessories, violence (against themselves, mostly), and desperation. If there is redemption, it is a faraway cathedral to which these people will never be admitted if they even choose to brave the journey. Only a single person in these stories, and the only female in a lead role, a young girl we meet in the summer before her departure for college in Michigan, has decided "what (she) will take and what (she) will leave behind," by which she means the usual baggage of an incoming freshman; and even those are sullied forever by a single lapse, one as simple as falling into a deeper sleep than was permissible.
Cross' stories reverberate with the idea that there was once, in each of these characters' lives, a moment when things may have gone differently, where youthful bravado and indifference could have matured into responsibility and self-worth. Yet just one, Ron, in 'Only the Strong Will Survive,' achieves it. The rest confess to and mourn their weaknesses in silence; the people they have hurt, or will, are left with their pain and, like the painter who in 'The Brother,' stands on one side of the glass while the people who have robbed him drive away, there is no way to say which one is imprisoned, which one free. These men know that they should bet "only what they could afford to lose," and if there is little left to lose, why not take all the risks? Why not drive around aimlessly, "making turns for no other reason than how the road was banked?" Why not take comfort in the fact that, "in the end it was all beyond our control?"
Fire and heat wrap around the personal histories of Cross' characters. The title story begins with a house burning down to the ground and in 'This Too,' a sister remembers her brother as a child, "falling through a sea of smoke, disappearing finally into the flames." In 'Come August,' two little girls, "as relentless as the heat," beg for the touch of cool water, one of them running, "arms flailing like she's on fire." Smoke billows out from between the slot machines in 'The Gambler.' In 'The Brother,' a man hiding his own demons takes his girlfriend and her brother to watch the sunsets ignite the clouds, Lake Erie itself on fire, "a giant all-consuming blaze far out on the horizon," and in 'Harvesters,' we have the awe-inspiring image of a farmer taking a match to his fields, the same ones on which the wheat had waved "like a shimmer of heat," and sets them burning in "a rolling wave of fire." In the hands of a less skillful writer, it may seem contrived; not here. The setting of these stories is dark, gray, bitter, working class and troubled. It stands to reason its people would come to see themselves the same way, and that the only illumination possible is to fan the ashes within and watch the outside blaze.
As Eric says in the title story, "Dignity was a faraway country from which I had been exiled years before, a place I could hardly recall." Indeed, very little of it is permitted the underclass of this nation, a fact that creeps up on the reader as these stories unfold, one after another, bringing news of realities so rarely addressed by contemporary writers. How noteworthy is it, then, that Cross offers no apologies for his characters: their poor choices, their lack of moral fortitude, their betrayals of each other and the poverty of their surroundings and, often, themselves; he leaves these things alone. They are who they are, and if dignity has been denied them by the rest of us, including us story-tellers, it is restored by this collection. That he has undertaken to serve as their raconteur should place Cross on the radar of all the big prizes that gift those blessed with talent, compassion and fearlessness, particularly during this present moment in our history.