Lee K. Abbott, Short Story Writer
1982 cleveland arts prize for Literature
The short story is generally defined as a piece of prose fiction that can be read in one sitting. In the hands of a master like Lee Abbott, however, the short story becomes something more—a microcosmic view of the world of Everyman and Everywoman, where calamity, loneliness, haplessness and heartbreak are revealed with both painful authenticity and comic acceptance.
Short stories are often compared to snapshots, but in Abbott’s case the more apt analogy is to holograms. His best work presents fully realized, three-dimensional characters and settings that are as vivid as life itself. With a remarkable ear for dialogue and a seemingly limitless supply of humor, Abbott creates characters that jump off the page and take up permanent residence in our minds, where they continue to amuse and enlighten us long after we’ve finished reading.
A native and still part-time resident of New Mexico, Abbott places most of his stories in the American Southwest, the area he knows best. His tales almost always feature a few kooks and oddballs, to be sure, but for the most part the stories are populated by average folks engaged in the same quests we all pursue—looking for meaning in life, for understanding and, above all, for love. That Abbott chooses to present his protagonists’ tribulations in a comic light reminds us that absurdity is as much a part of the human condition as suffering or joy. Indeed, the confusions and missteps of his characters are often the most profound revelations of their humanity.
Abbott served on the faculty of the English department of Case Western Reserve University from 1976 to 1989, during which period he won one of his two O. Henry Awards and all three of his Pushcart Prizes. He earned the Cleveland Arts Prize for Literature in 1982. His collection, The Heart Never Fits Its Wanting, won the 1980 St. Lawrence Award for Fiction; he has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; and his stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories and other anthologies. Currently, he divides his time between New Mexico and Columbus, Ohio, where he is professor of English and former director of the master of fine arts in creative writing program at The Ohio State University.
Novelist William Harrison calls Abbott “John Cheever’s true heir, our major American short story writer.” Fellow writer Max Apple says Abbott possesses “a unique voice, one of the best in contemporary fiction.” Both men are correct. Like Cheever, Abbott limns people and places with the precision of a watchmaker. And he does so in a style purely his own, at once straightforward, quirky, formally intelligent and unabashedly acrobatic.
Most of Abbott’s readers harbor a frustration that, in its way, is one of the highest compliments an author can receive. They would like to spend more time with his characters—perhaps share miseries over a beer or three in some dusty Southwest saloon, or just eavesdrop on a few more of their disjointed conversations. One measure of Lee Abbott’s talent is that his stories make such robust connections with readers. Another is that those same readers keep coming back for more, returning again and again as to a much-loved old friend who never ceases to delight with his ability to spin a yarn they’ve never heard before.
Friends, at thirty-four, on the edge of triple ruin, his crazed and minutely crenate brain steaming with waste, Scooter E. Watts was a bona fide numero uno furtivo—creepy, brilliant, a loser, weak and consumptive, his guts a quaking moil and true image of Modern Times. “Me,” he said one night, “I’m flopped, got to be dulled out.” The moon was up, full and nasty, a fat juicy piece of depraved fruit; and Scooter was saying that if there weren’t meaning or purpose or reason in this good life, there had to be something- sum, quotient, salty residue. “There’s paste or ash or goo,” he said. “Me, I’m gonna find it, shake its muscular hand.” Unmarried, his heart a fist slamming against his ribs, without gifts or vision, lacking a home and ordinary parents, Scooter Watts was doomed, Friends, as unlikely and unwelcome a being as Godzilla. He was trumped, stewed, crushed, and beleaguered. And so, aiming to change his fortunes, he stuffed his clothes in a ditty bag and, hitching, lit out, heading south.
“I know the many ways to kill a man,” he told the first dude to give him a ride. “He can be gutted, stomped, whipped, shot, chopped, pierced with knives and arrows, exploded into infinity, buried and mashed, drowned in a sumphole and forgotten, humiliated, worried till his heart breaks.” The driver was interested, fearsomely. “He can be suffocated with pillows or horse blankets, set aflame by his own longing, dragged behind a Greyhound bus, made to drink poison, have affection withheld, told he’s queer, given useless chores to occupy his idle hours, and whomped by fortune.” The driver was whipping through Beltway traffic in Washington. “You can do this slow or with dispatch,” Scooter told him. “Many folks prefer speed to beauty and so advise against protracted deaths. Me, I like living and being free.”
—“Near the Heart-Place of Grue,” from The Heart Never Fits Its Wanting (Cedar Falls: The North American Review, 1980)
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