Richard Grayson, Highly Irregular StoriesThe second writer-friend book I've read recently is by Richard Grayson. (As before, I disclaim any pretense of objectivity. Just trust me.) Over the past year or two Richard has become a mentor and friend, one who is equally happy critiquing my work as he is swapping stories of Brooklyn and Chicago. He's a refreshingly candid and down-to-earth guy who has been writing great stories for decades and whose writing career has run the gamut, from critically-acclaimed young tyro eager to publish at every opportunity to a wiser, sales-challenged veteran who has mostly left the publishing industry behind and creates fiction entirely on his own terms.
Richard's book, Highly Irregular Stories, is a collection of four chapbooks from early in his career which show a young writer who was fearless in experimenting with form while never forgetting about storytelling. Much of the book is metafictional, with many stories cleverly being about the stories themselves. (And one story, "Narcissism and Me", even has the story's reader be its narrator – I can’t really explain it, so you’ll just have to read it.) His stories are funny, minimalist, and sometimes fantastical in nature. Though the entire collection is a rewarding read, I'll just point out a few of the highights.
The "Eating at Arby's" chapbook hilariously relates the primitive, childlike conversations (described by one reviewer as “equidistant between Hemingway's short stories and Dick and Jane”) of Zelda and Manny, an old Jewish married couple who relentlessly praise their South Florida home, their sunny dispositions desperately but never quite disguising many dark undercurrents - suffocating heat, racial tension, drug trafficking, murder - to life in the Sunshine State. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp" is a rollicking, episodic satire on corporate and government life, set in an absurd Manhattan where the chairman of the Federal Reserve faces down a balky ATM, his mother frets over him at their Trump Tower apartment while repeatedly watching an old videotape of her deceased husband, and the Comptroller of the Currency on a flight from LaGuardia struggles to figure out how he'll explain to his wife how the bag of bagels he brought home to D.C. for her is now half-empty, without bringing up the touchy subject of the cute teenage girl in the next seat who spent their flight obliviously enjoying both his attention and his bagel-generosity.
The strongest story of all is "My Twelfth Twelfth Story Story", in which the narrator tells of writing the twelfth and final story of his collection, all of which involve characters who live on various twelfth stories. The writer is a widower who is raising a young daughter, and struggles to write and earn a living while also being a good father as the girl lives in a fantasy world to avoid the reality and pain of the loss of her mother. Though Grayson isn't a father himself, he perfectly captures the joys and fears of every parent as well as the inner life of a young girl, showing a remarkable bit of empathy in doing so.
Highly Irregular Stories is another fine collection of stories from one very prolific and inventive author.