I picked up the collection of short stories “Eating Naked” by Stephen Dobyns at a sale two years ago and then promptly forgot about it. Now that I have tried to sort my books into some sort of order (read separate the travel from the recipe books, and the short story collections from novels!) this book caught my eye.
I did not like the first story, “A Happy Vacancy” finding its ending sort of ‘preachy’. The premise was interesting: a serious poet and professor is killed by a pig (being transported for a movie shoot) falling from the sky, and how his wife comes to terms with his death. I loved the story (and the writing) right up to the end, when I felt it was an “explanation paragraph” too long. Literary short stories which talk too much at the end of what the story is about (just in case the reader didn’t get it?) have never been my favorite.
Dobyns is a well-known writer with dozens of poetry collections and novels under his belt, is a Pushcart prize-winning short story writer who has taught creative writing to folks since before I was born, so I don’t know if I have the right to call anything by him ‘preachy’. But as a reader, I’ve found I have to drop some books I don’t like overmuch so I can get on with reading ones I actually love.
I was about to put the book down in my ‘to be given away’ pile, when I began reading “The Chaucer Professor”. The premise hooked me again, and I could not put it down to the end, and this time the story was delightful, funny, ironic, subtle. It stripped the masks off the characters, revealing complex, contradictory layers underneath. It whetted my appetite for more.
The other stories are gems, nearly all of them, and I’m in awe of how Dobyns takes an often absurd, ridiculous situation and proceeds to make of it a meditative story, profound and thought-provoking. I re-read the first story, and I still don’t like the ending, but I learned a valuable lesson: when reading a collection of short stories, sample a few stories before you decide whether you like it.