You’ve gotta drive

John Freeman is the American editor of Granta magazine

Nearly every novel Louise Erdrich has published began life as a short story. “I am certain that I have come to the end,” she explains in the preface to The Red Convertible, her collection of fabulously sexy new and selected tales. “But the stories are rarely finished with me. They gather force and weight and complexity.” And then—presumably—they take flight.

This is a fascinating description of a novelist at work, but it sells these short stories short. Compiled from 30 years of work, spanning an enormous variety of registers, from a rascally farce to the high lonesome tragedy that eventually became the novel Love Medicine, The Red Convertible reveals Erdrich to be one of America’s finest writers of short fiction.

She starts with big themes. The tales in this book revolve around the folly and fever of desire, the complicated ties of family, the gravitational tug of human weakness. You can count on things going awry in an Erdrich story, often as a combination of the above.

In the title piece, a young Indian man and his brother buy a shiny red Oldsmobile together. “I thought of the word ‘repose’ because the car wasn’t simply stopped, parked, or whatever,” says the narrator, about the first time he saw it. “That car reposed, calm and gleaming. … Then before we had thought it over at all, the car belonged to us and our pockets were empty.”

The dislocation of being an Indian returns again and again in these tales, inspiring movement. People light out, elope and disappear. Gerry Nanapush, the jailbird renegade of Love Medicine, appears in these tales, infamous for his vanishing acts.

In another story (a family newspaper wouldn’t tell you it’s called “Fuck With Kayla and You Die”), an Indian man is mistaken for a valet. He is handed the keys to a white man’s Jeep and drives off into the night. But rather than joy ride, or steal, he spends half a day looking in on the man’s sad life.

Given that so many tales here became novels, one would think they might feel unfinished. This is not the case. Many of Erdrich’s short stories do spread laterally, roping in or alluding to family history. They are also—and unlike so much short fiction—full of action and mystery. People die or fall in love. An old man is robbed; a beautiful woman puts a curse on everyone who touches her; lightning strikes a tent pole in the middle of a trapeze act.

More than anything, The Red Convertible is a study in the chaos of passion, how the law of entropy in the world begins with our most basic desire to love and be loved. It cannot be helped, and sometimes this arsonist’s fire begins with a handsome man, but more often, at least in these tales, it is a lady.

“There is a kind of woman who, though she had been lovely all her life, attains a burst of reckless glory in her late forties,” begins the story “Anna.”

Now tell me you’re going to stop reading after that.