Who is more vain than a writer? In the case of “The Secret Society of Demolition Writers,” a dozen of them. We are told that Aimee Bender, Benjamin Cheever, Michael Connelly, Sebastian Junger, Elizabeth McCracken, Rosie O’Donnell, Chris Offutt, Marc Parent, Anna Quindlen, John Burnham Schwartz, Alice Sebold and Lauren Slater all contributed short stories to it. What editor Parent isn’t telling is: Who wrote which one?
Parent explains that the book was inspired by the demolition derby in rural Pennsylvania to which he takes his family on a yearly pilgrimage, an event where he glimpses the qualities that make for a champion. What if that sense of fearlessness, of having nothing to lose, could be transferred to writing? “What story would you tell if no one knew it was you?” he asks. The relative anonymity, he contends, would embolden the writing.
Perhaps -- if one accepts the premise that Sebold or any of the writers were somehow holding back before this. The irony of dangling their names but not crediting their precise contributions, however, begs us to think more, not less about them -- their signature styles, what exactly it is that distinguishes the son of John Cheever from former TV talk-show host Rosie.
Their mug shots on the back cover also undermine the theme. Not one of the group looks fit for a crash helmet. If nerds and testosterone mixed, Bryn Mawr would dominate NASCAR. And if a transport metaphor had to be used, cars were all wrong. This book is perfect for planes and trains -- just the book for a summer season with lots of short-story-sized reading opportunities facing us in departure lounges and cramped economy-class compartments.
The surprising thing as you settle down in Row 32, Seat A, is how good the stories are and, in spite of the demolition theme, how artfully they have been ordered. All but one of the stories are beautiful, immediate and deeply American.
Their potency lies not in some high-octane virility, but in a hypnotic lucidity. A better title might be “Dispatches From a Dream State.” These writers take us to an emotional edge of consciousness, the intimacy defining a fundamental difference between novels and short stories. One is by no means a longer version of the other. Novels require a wide-awake start. The writer is caffeinated and waiting for us with characters up to enough action to sustain a book. In short stories, so often we meet the protagonists in a state of reflection, rapt in a moment or tripped into an etiology of feeling.
In lesser hands, we would be left with tone poems, but the storytelling here is first-class. The offerings have the structure needed to hold their saturated emotion. There is the tale of the woman selling her eggs to a fertility clinic as her mother dies of breast cancer, the pharmacist smitten by a homicidal cutie, the compassionate rue of a snide fashion writer, a cable TV guy’s first call of the day turning out to be the site of a suicide.
One of the most conventional stories -- the account of a locksmith summoned by a rich creep to crack an old safe -- only seems straightforward. Soon the writing pulls off a lush, wholly successful 19th century sleight of plot in which reality bends in a way reminiscent of an M. Night Shyamalan film. Only one story of the dozen is a gimmicky wreck -- a mid-book confection in which every character bears a corruption of a contributor’s name.
Who wrote which? It hardly matters. The remarkable thing is how well the book survives its conceit to reveal an emotional echo chamber holding some of American letters’ most touching voices.*