Good short-story collections, like good albums, have their own logic and cohesion; the individual stories may stand alone, but they are better for being together. Two new collections — "Half an Inch of Water" by Percival Everett (Graywolf: 88 pp., $16 paper) and "Vertigo" by Joanna Walsh (Dorothy: 120 pp., $16 paper) — take advantage of this idea, offering short, immersive tone poems with repeating motifs and lovely, complicating flourishes.
"Half an Inch of Water" plunges into the contemporary American West with quiet confidence and a shimmer of magic. Everett lives in Los Angeles — he's a distinguished professor of English at USC and one of the city's most decorated writers — but his new book takes place in rural Wyoming, a territory characterized by ranches, an Indian reservation and a lot of expansive, unpopulated land.
Everett paints a vibrant picture of the West that layers itself subtly but assertively over the prevailing mythos of the lonely white cowboy. His cast is diverse — black, white and Native as well as male and female (OK, more male) — but identity politics don't really play into his narratives.
Everett has written about race before — his career spans almost 30 books that deal with an astonishing breadth of subjects — but in this collection he does so by the simple refusal to render it invisible. The claim this decision stakes on the imagined West is discreet but powerful.
His stories may be contemporary, but they have a mythic, romantic, timeless quality, setting people against backdrops that melt seamlessly into wilderness, both physical and spiritual. The first story, "Little Faith," opens with a spring-fed creek, a ranch, moose and elk and this description of veterinarian Sam Innis: "Love of the spread had been rubbed into him like so much salve, a barrier against whatever was out there in the world, a layer of peace."
Sam joins a search party for a deaf Native American girl, leaving safety and civilization to find her unharmed in a den of rattlesnakes, where he wrangles feverishly with mortality.
Many of the stories here pivot on encounters with animals and spirits in ways that reveal tender, intricate textures, suspended in shifting terrain between the solid and the surreal.
In "Exposure," a man takes a hike with his rebellious 14-year-old daughter, and their conflicts fall to the wayside in the face of a common enemy — a hungry-looking mountain lion. "A High Lake" describes an old woman who gets lost in a snowstorm and encounters a beloved dead dog, prancing and thrilled to see her.
"Two walks around an enclosed arena and you'll know just a little more than you knew before you came here," says one of Everett's characters to a first-time horse rider. "Maybe."
While Everett wanders Wyoming, Walsh takes her main character all around the world without straying far from the inside of her head. The linked stories in "Vertigo" all feature the same narrator, an unnamed woman who approaches the events and circumstances of her life with wry wisdom and chronic unease.
Walsh has published two other books, but she might be best known for starting #readwomen, a Twitter campaign designed to elevate the visibility of female writers. Her prose has the precise, observant quality of a master tweeter, with none of the frivolity that might imply. Think Renata Adler's "Speedboat" with a faster engine or Jenny Offill's "Dept. of Speculation" with even less plot emphasis. Clocking it at 120 pages, "Vertigo" reads with the exhilarating speed and concentrated force of a poetry collection. Each word seems carefully weighed and prodded for sound, taste, touch. Her diction is plain; her style high. "You will live with me there all your life: a little canker that does no real harm, folded into your skin," Walsh writes in "New Year's Day," addressing a thought from her narrator to a lover.
The stories depend little on plot or action; they unfold instead as a series of snapshots, the concrete details spread out like stepping stones over a pond of unknown depth. "A friend told me to buy a red dress in Paris because I am leaving my husband," begins "Fin de Collection" (which is — appropriately and disorientingly — the first story in the collection). "The right teller can make any tale, the right dresser can make any dress. Listen to me carefully: I am not the right teller."
The book is designed to induce vertigo, "the sense that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space." The stories are delicate, but they leave a strong impression, a lasting sense of detachment colliding with feeling, a heady destabilization.