December Read of the Month: “Want v. Need: Stories from Pottawatomie County,” by Amy Susan Wilson

Amy Susan Wilson

Amy Susan Wilson

Reviewed by William Bernhardt

Just when the cynics begin to wonder if the short story as a literary form is lost, moribund, or permanently encased in amber, Third Lung Press presents a collection that reminds us how rich, how enriching, and how truly American this form is.

Want v. Need: Stories from Pottawatomie County is the first collection from Amy S. Wilson, but I hope it will not be the last. Although her stories have appeared in many fine literary periodicals, this is Wilson’s first book. And it is a revelation. Traveling through these stories, which mostly gravitate around Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma, and the small town of Shawnee, you may feel as if you are entering red dirt country with your eyes open for the first time. Some of the stories may give you the nagging feeling that you’ve encountered these people before but never understood them – until now. The familiarity does not arise because Wilson is writing stereotypical characters. Just the opposite – it’s because the characters are so well observed with such insightful detail that virtually anyone could find a point of reference.

Another welcome aspect of the book is the frequent and genuine humor. Wilson never resorts to small-town clichés and she never makes fun of or patronizes her subjects. The humor emerges, not simply to amuse, but as another means of getting to the truth. This is the deft wit of a careful and sympathetic observer, not the broad humor of a television sitcom.

Wilson is also not afraid to allow poignant moments to slip into her work, even though sentimentality can be the bane of literary critics. She is never treacly, but she does find sympathy in the most unlikely places and the most eccentric characters. No one is reduced to a single note. Consequently, every character comes off as real, a genuine exemplar of the diverse community of humanity. Sometimes these moments come when you least expect them. Wilson flips from raw and biting to warm and human so quickly the reader is left breathless.

As the first story of the collection, “Fetish,” suggests, Wilson does not shy away from the subject of sex, but it is always treated as the essential part of the fabric of life that it is, rather than as something thrown in to grasp for attention. I would not have thought it possible for someone to come up with a sexual fetish I had not heard of before, but Wilson manages it, in the first tale in the collection. Anyone who has ever aspired to write can probably relate to the collection of unlikely scriveners in “The Pottawatomie County Pen & Quill Society Creative Writing & Potluck.” Even here, though, Wilson manages to identify the quirks and idiosyncrasies of these aspiring artists without patronizing them.

Wilson’s eye for incisive observation is everywhere, but perhaps my favorite example is in the story “Love Bug,” in which she begins a sentence “My thighs stick like duct tape to the Bug’s backseat” and then carries on with a long tour de force paragraph that does nothing but describe thighs. If that sounds dull, trust me, it isn’t. It’s enchanting.

One of Edgar Allan Poe’s oft-repeated guidelines for short stories was that authors should strive for “unity of effect,” meaning that they should create a uniform mood or ambience. Wilson does this beautifully, and what is even more impressive is how that mood shifts from one story to the next. What is perhaps even more powerful is how all the stories, read in totality, add up to yet another unity of effect, a celebration of life, a feeling that whether we live in Pottawatomie County or Pago Pago, we are all pretty much the same, comprised of the same feelings, flaws, and foibles.

It is not often these days that one reads a collection in which every story rings like a bell, clear and resonant, with no false notes. It is even less common to read prose so consistently fine, so self-assured. And it is less common yet to read a book that leaves you feeling good about the world, about everyone else in the world, and about your own place in the world. Want v. Need is just such a book. Sartre claimed that “hell is other people,” but after you read these stories, you’ll be convinced that people are actually heaven.

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