Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Collection of Pieces and Parts

Book Review: Problems with People by David Guterson

I like short stories. There ... I said it.

It started with Steinbeck, but branched out into Hemingway, Kipling, and Edgar Allan Poe; then on to Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers - I was hooked. Detective stories, science fiction, horror ... pick a genre. They are short, sharp, succinct; something that you can read in a sitting but that can stay with you for a lifetime ("The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Snows of Kilimanjaro").

David Guterson is a skillful writer; I especially enjoy his crafting of dialog. There is no shortage of excellent writing in the ten stories that comprise Problems with People. Yet somehow, the great writing does not seem to jell into great stories. At times I felt as if I was reading a character sketch, or a chapter randomly lifted from another book. I appreciate that the short story puts constraints on an author in terms of character development and plotting, however "short" should not mean fragmentary - there still needs to be a story.

At times, especially in the stories "Shadow" and "Hush", Guterson is almost there. I did not have that same feeling with those as I did with the remaining stories; that this was a longer work with some pieces left out, like a badly edited newspaper story. Guterson's use of the language approaches poetry at times, and can be a joy to read, the words like fine wine on the tongue. The pieces within the stories are very well done, sadly the parts don't come together as a whole.