An inner dark

In the past two decades, as short stories have disappeared almost entirely from glossy magazines, it’s become hard to find writers who will take risks in the form. Imagine: There was a day when Harold Brodkey could publish a 20-page story that took place entirely during a sex act. John Cheever imagined a drunk husband swimming his way home from a dinner party, swimming pool by swimming pool.

Through these lean years, Lee K. Abbott has insistently claimed that mantle of experimentation. In six previous collections, the New Mexico-based writer has stuffed as many semicolons as he could fit into a sentence, strapped them to no-luck narrators and explored what happened when you shot them at the moon, with whiskey as their rocket fuel.

Abbott has now gathered this work together with some new stories, titling the collection All Things, All at Once. This is a big moment for Abbott, as a collected volume can do for a short story scribe what a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art will do for a painter.

Abbott is a fine writer, who, like Cheever, seeks out the sublime on the back nine, where the mundane real estate of the suburbs turns into something magical and cosmic. But something wilder lurks in his pages, even less mainstream than Cheever. Abbott has a yen for drunks and divorcees, for men with logorrhea and a barely concealed sentimental streak. Some of his characters have had serious substance problems. “I was Number 56 then,” says the narrator of “Love is a Crooked Thing,” “your gruesome outside linebacker, and dressed up in my workingman’s clothes of plastic thigh pad and Riddell headgear, I had this purpose on earth: to sunder (as in render) flesh and make it lie down quietly.”

Almost all of Abbott’s stories reflect this tension between flesh and the spirit—a casually phrased but almost Biblical sense of guilt attached to the body and what it begs of some men. When Abbott’s characters look at their own lives in the present tense, they can become slippery, self-forgiving—an understandable instinct. Many of these men are divorced, and most have only themselves to blame. “Folks,” says one character, “there is something in a man, independent of his lustful underhalf, which loosens and grows light when a woman shows him that she’s a creature, too: time stops and even before clothes are shed, or noises made, there is something—composed of gland and the way you are taught, I suspect—that makes you think you are wise when you are dumb, able when you are not.”

Passages like this feel a little convinced of their profundity. Abbott’s best work happens when he lets the darkness speak for itself. In “The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance,” a young man listens to a story his father tells, disguising himself as a man named X. His father talks of X’s first marital breakdown, and he prepares for the chaos to come: “I remember thinking that this was the hard part, the part wherein X was entitled to go crazy and do a hundred destructive acts, maybe grow miserly and sullen, utter an ugly phrase or two. Certainly drink immoderately. I was wrong.”

These are stories about men riddled with regret, who attempt to be good but find themselves pulled in the other direction by weakness. Fiction frequently shows us the aftermath of bad decisions—the smoking wreck of families left behind. Few show us the interior life of the man stumbling away, poised between that “enchanted province of paradise and dread” that is the future, quite so honestly as the men Abbott has invented here. One would feel for them a little more if they weren’t so sure they had our sympathies from the get-go.