Everyone Worth Knowingis a collection of seventeen short stories by American author Jeff Richards. Each one presents us with an example of the flawed American male, from adolescents to students to middle-aged fathers and beyond. Set mainly in the US, in landscapes of small towns, mountains and wide open spaces, there is a mixture of the timeless and the specific.
The stories are all in the 10-15 page range except the slightly shorter ‘Where I Want’, and are mostly told in the first person with just a few in third person. ‘Hallelujah’ felt like it was a part of something bigger, a short glimpse into a road trip full of spontaneity and misadventures, and I wondered if it was an excerpt from an abandoned novel. The main character in each story is male, and none of them are truly good guys even when they think they are. Some are definitely bad guys, like the protagonist of ‘Cool Guitar’, but most are complicated and human, and presented to the reader without judgement. The style throughout is detached and dispassionate, in many cases an almost filmic presentation of action and dialogue. Many of the main characters are never named. It has to be said that even the first-person narratives don’t give much insight into the inner workings of the men at the heart of these stories, and certainly no glimpse into the female characters who all seem unknowable.
In ‘Fine Art’, which was inspired by a painting by Tom Birkner, Richards mentions a Hopper painting and I realised that much of this collection has that Hopper vibe. A starkly realist portrait of small-town America, the observer looking on at unknown tableaux and drawing their own conclusions. It’s at its most obvious in ‘Fine Art’ itself which has a tense stillness about it, and little dialogue. That story also uses repetition – of phrases, of scenes – which is another technique Richards uses in many of his stories to great effect, either straightforward repeats or with subtle changes.
The main thread running through the collection is the idea of fallible men trying to live in a way they think is expected of them. Few seem to be doing what they want or need to do. It isn’t always clear that they know what that is, and a few seem to lose or destroy the thing they’re trying hardest to hold onto. Whatever the age of the protagonist, from the twelve-year-old in ‘The Right Thing’ to the fifty-nine-year-old widower in ‘The Bees’, they seem easily swayed by what others might think of them. Several seem to want to prove they’re a Real Man, with all the possessive misogyny, violence, and casual homophobia that goes with that. In ‘Dude’ it’s a little subtler, with the revelation of his infertility prompting an identity crisis in a man who runs away to be a cowboy and finds it not quite what he expected.
Some of the main characters want to be seen as cool, or successful, or to live up to their dad’s expectations – or to what they assume those unvoiced expectations are. Others are desperate not to turn out like their own dad, or in the case of Mr Runnels in ‘Last Supper’, helpless as he watches his son turn out like his father-in-law. Many of them had divorced parents, the fathers casting a long shadow even when they had been absent from most of their son’s existence. As the main character’s sister says on the subject of having children in ‘Where I Want’, ‘You want to ruin another generation?’
There is a fair amount of looking back in these stories. Back to childhood, back to happier times, back to before it all went wrong. In ‘The Heart-Shaped Box’ the man recalls his true love from more than thirty years before, who thought he was crazy: ‘Craziness was a desirable trait in those days’. He can’t admit the shadow that relationship has cast over his life, so he can’t move on. The protagonist of ‘Cool Guitar’ fondly remembers the days when his main occupation was guitarist not drunkard. The title story stands out as one in which a character – not the main character admittedly, but his friend – acquires some self-knowledge and appears to change.
I have two minor quibbles with the collection, and a warning. The first tiny point is that the second and third stories in the collection (‘Losing Lars’, and ‘Rage! Blow!’) are both set at the same boarding school, with the main characters both in the same class. Because they were consecutive stories so early in the book it made me expect further links which never appear. The second point is about the stories’ setting in time.
Jeff Richards has clearly been writing for a while, and I imagine the stories in the collection were written over a long period. The first story, ‘Riding the Fences’ is set during 2020, featuring masks as political statement, and Black Lives Matter. Later on, ‘Happiness’ uses social media to great effect as the frame for a disintegrating marriage. Because we tend to read a story as set in the present unless we’re nudged into thinking of another time, it was mildly discombobulating when characters in other apparently contemporary stories used payphones, or didn’t use the internet in a situation where that would be natural now. The character in ‘The Heart-Shaped Box’ is thinking back to a time that’s not much more than thirty years ago but turns out to be the late sixties, which threw me for a moment. It might have been advantageous to indicate when the stories were written – even the previously published ones only indicate where and not when they appeared.
I feel I should point out that one of the stories contains a rather bloody suicide attempt, which is integral to the plot. I won’t specify which one as I think it would spoil it for everyone who read this review first, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you have particular sensitivities around that.
For full appreciation, I recommend the reader is more immersed in Americana than I am. My grasp of American culture has slipped over the past twenty-five years and there were terms in the stories I didn’t understand, and passing references that were clearly shorthand for something, the significance of which escapes me. To cap it all, ‘Rage! Blow!’ is mostly set during a football game and includes much detailed play that may as well be in Finnish for all the sense it made to me. However, the landscape he depicts and most of the confused men blundering their way through life within it, transcend cultural boundaries.
JY Saville lives and writes in northern England, and made it onto the first stage of the Penguin Random House WriteNow scheme for writers from under-represented backgrounds in 2017. Her short fiction has been published in more than forty places includingUntitled: Voices, Truffle magazine, and Confingo. She has reviewed books for The Bookbag, Disclaimer, SFReader, and had a review column at the Luna Station Quarterly blog for a while. She doesn’t read nearly as many books as she’d like to. She blogs at http://thousandmonkeys.wordpress.com/ and tweets @JYSaville