“River Talk: Stories”

By CB Anderson

C&R Press

Chattanooga, Tenn.

2014. 236 pages, trade paperback, $16

Some schools of literary studies don’t think so, but the influence of Ernest Hemingway on how Americans write literary short stories has been profound. And eight or so decades later it’s still at work, as you might gather from CB Anderson’s new collection of stories, “River Talk.”

A couple of Hemingway’s most influential storytelling strategies operate in these stories. One involves predominantly direct, spare sentences to use writing-workshop descriptors. This style developed directly out of Hemingway’s experiences in journalism, where straight-line diction is preferred over windy, purple prose. CB Anderson’s sentences take this sometimes clinical-sounding approach (“The summer after his wife died, Rex played darts every night before work.”) and — no surprise — she is herself a journalist by trade.

Another strategy developed out of the Hemingway curve involves the omission of seemingly key information. The stories in “River Talk” are about people in fictional Maine towns, many of whom live lives on the financial edge, working in mills or the woods or little self-run shops. Their emotional reserve is a concealing factor — from each other and also from the readers: Many of these stories seem to end with skeletons left in the closet.

“Taken” is told by a taxidermist, Buzz, whose old friend Sheridan (recognizable in almost any rural Maine town — my neighbor described one of ours as a fellow who “cuts a wide swath”) is on ragged hard times since his girlfriend, Et, left him. Et moved into the tight little situation where Buzz keeps his taxidermy shop. Most of the story turns on the relationships between Buzz and Sheridan and Buzz and Et. What’s apparent is Sheridan’s jealousy. But what’s mostly invisible is the backstory between Sheridan and Et and, not least, Buzz’s psychological past, which turns out to have an alarming potential for violence.

Many of the stories in “River Talk” turn on men’s weaknesses broken bad, as seen from the point of view of women who somehow have gotten cornered into emotional complicity with anger, lechery, jealousy or incarnations of connivery.

In “The Geometry of Words,” Usha, an intellectually energetic young college student, is sexually manipulated by her charming math professor, who is also a participant in an unspecifically sketchy marriage. In the title story, 20-something Ena is tortured by events in her past that she wants to tell her fiance, Jack, about. He doesn’t really want to hear it, so, like the author, Ena spends time “trying to figure out where to start and which parts to tell” (code for: which parts not to tell). Many details of Ena’s seduction at age 14 by a neighborhood dad eventually emerge, but it’s clear neither Ena nor the author has come completely clean, not by a long shot.

Leaving out important information is intended to create a sense of emotional depth and intellectual complexity. In “River Talk,” such omissions seem very carefully, rationally plotted, and this, together with mostly terse language and dialogue, creates a sort of angular, surgical feeling. A lot is very sharply drawn, and a lot is left unsaid, and so a connection to Hemingway seems more than tangential, and even calculated. Or it could be that these 20th century innovations are now 21st century conventions. I’d be curious to hear from readers who think this has gone off the radarscope.

CB Anderson, of Maine and Massachusetts, grew up near Rumford and is a journalist and a writing instructor. Her stories have received a number of awards and appeared in many literary magazines operating in or on the outskirts of academia.

Her upcoming appearances include readings at Maine Coast Book Shop in Damariscotta at 7 p.m. Sept. 5; at the Patten Free Library in Bath at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 9; and with Camden poet Kristen Lindquist and former Maine Poet Laureate Betsy Sholl at The Gallery at Harmon’s & Barton’s in Portland at 6 p.m. Sept. 16. More information is available at cbanderson.net.

Off Radar appears about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].

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