Like his novel, Snow Falling On Cedars, for which he received the PEN/Faulkner Award, Guterson's beautifully observed and emotionally piercing short stories are set largely in the Pacific Northwest. In these vast landscapes, hunting, fishing, and sports are the givens of men's lives. With prose that stings like the scent of gunpowder, this is a collection of power.
Far too much American-style masculinity for my taste: the stories are almost all about killing things, hitting balls, or fantasizing about women. It's basically readin' 'bout how to hunt, fish, shoot, bang 'n wank, as someone elegantly put it in a talk thread today. Good if that's the sort of thing you enjoy reading about, but otherwise a bit of a turn-off for the reader. "American elm", about an encounter between a youth and an elderly farmer, is probably the only one I'd trouble to read again.
I grew up in Wilkes, Rhode Island, where the light in early winter seems to roll off the backs of the clouds and ignite along the waters of ponds and millstreams, and the cold rot smell of the barren forests comes ghostly out of the tough earth, and the gold air and sky have a muted volume of both space and spirit broken only by the reach of church spires soft-white and giant against the slow maple hills.
I also like the understated nature of Guterson's stories. Understated in the sense that he does not try to wrap the entire story up with a bow and have it entirely self-contained. Like the best short story writers, he leaves threads hanging that make the reader ponder the impact of events or emotions on the characters beyond the framework of the story itself.
I really liked a couple of the stories. Opening Day looks at three generations of men in one family as they go duck hunting on opening day. Narrated by the man who is both son (to Pop) and father (to Sean), it shows how certain wisdom is passed along through shared experiences. The reader also watches the men come to the realization that Pop’s days of hunting are over, that his age and deteriorating health make it impossible to continue. Nothing is said about it, but Pop shows with quiet dignity that he has decided this tradition they’ve shared is in the past.
The last story in the collection is also very good. The Flower Garden shines a light on first love, through the lens of hindsight. There is tenderness and confusion, miscommunication and soul-baring, and, of course, regrets. And American Elm deals with the decisions one man makes on how to live his last days.
I was decidedly uncomfortable with a couple of the stories - Piranhas, in particular, was very disturbing, giving a glimpse of a possible sociopath-in-the-making.
The biggest complaint I had about the stories, however, was the feeling I had that they were not complete. They seemed more like random chapters lifted from a larger work and I felt I was missing something. I have always liked the short story form, so it’s not that these were not novels that bothered me, is was that they seemed unfinished. And that is the reason for my lower rating.