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New Story Collections Nourish And Astonish


Evan S. Connell, an old American master, and Claire Keegan, a young Irish prodigy, both have new books of short fiction this summer — and both are worth picking up.

Connell's best work arises from the tension between the author's Midwestern roots and his forays into more exotic territory. (Americans might best know him for his novel Mrs. Bridge, set in his native Kansas City and later made into the popular film starring Paul Newman.) His most recent collection, Lost in Uttar Pradesh, wanders from Connell's native Kansas to India — and everywhere in between.

In the story "The Walls of Avila," a Midwesterner named J.D. travels the world far and wide, sending reports back to his boyhood friends. "He had tales of the Casbah in Tangiers," the Kansas narrator tells us, "and he had souvenirs from the ruins of Carthage. On his keychain was a fragment of polished stone ... that he had picked up from the hillside just beyond Tunis...."

Connell's stories allow the reader to wander — from the South Pacific during World War II, to New York, San Francisco, Kansas City, to the Indian cities of Benares and Delhi. His tone ranges from satirical (when dealing with Midwest businessmen or West Coast avant-garde writers) to mysterious (when invoking the flavor of distant dreams and locales).

Most of these stories have been published in earlier collections and I'd read many of them before, but I was happy to read them again. If you're trying Connell's short fiction for the first time, you will be just as pleased.

If Connell's stories take readers on a journey, then Walk the Blue Fields, the second collection by young Irish writer Claire Keegan, keeps them close to (Keegan's) home ground.

Writing in a striking, Celtic-slanted prose, Keegan exposes the hearts, hopes and dreams of those in the Irish countryside. In the powerful title story, we meet a doubting priest as he performs the marriage ceremony for a woman with whom he once had a near life-transforming love affair. As the priest walks across the dance floor after the ceremony, Keegan writes, the bride "looks into his eyes. There are tears there but she is too proud to blink and let one fall. If she blinked, he would take her hand and take her away from this place. This, at least, is what he tells himself..."

The collection unfolds powerfully, with stories that chronicle an isolated young woman's discovery of seemingly magical powers, incest in a desperate Irish farm family and the disintegration of marriages. If Connell's work is wisely nourishing, then Keegan's is newly astonishing.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.