The Stuff Growing on the Bark


Nick Hornby, a.k.a. Nick Jagger, was induced to read this volume of short stories by a friend, Johanna. Agreeing to do so, with the usual reluctance he reserves for books recommended by friends, Hornby found himself buying up first editions for his other friends. “It’s that sort of book,” he says, in The Polysyllabic Spree.

The book is How to Breathe Underwater, by Julie Orringer. One year after reading Hornby’s endorsement—today, in fact—I sampled two of the stories. First I read “Stations of the Cross,” the last in the book, and not mentioned by Hornby. It reminded me of a film I saw recently, where the son of an Irish Catholic fireman sets out to convert the ailing son of the local rabbi. I could see immediately that Orringer can write. But she hadn’t convinced me yet that her writing was for me.

So I turned to the first story in the book, called “Pilgrims.” It was this story that had single-handedly compelled Hornby to grab up copies. This story, he promised, “makes you feel panicky and breathless.” That sounded like a rewarding experience, so I dipped into it. I didn’t feel panicky and breathless. Still, I could see why I might if I hadn’t been led to expect it.

For me, there are a couple of crucial tests of a good short story. These are utterly subjective. First, I have to be tempted, if not driven, to find more by the same author. Second, I have to believe that the story is one I would return to periodically. “Pilgrims” passes these tests. But I can’t say I “liked” the story. Like “Stations of the Cross,” “Pilgrims” has that artsy unfinished feel to it. This authorial penchant is fine with me, if it’s handled properly. I want to have some idea how my train of thought can proceed—not to say, should proceed—without the author’s assistance, when the sentences have run out. My limitation, I suppose.

Hornby generalizes in this way about Orringer’s ouvre: “while her themes are as solid and recognizable as oak trees, the stuff growing on the bark you’ve never seen before.” Now I’ve read two of her stories, I think maybe I know what he means. Maybe.

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