Ithaca Blog

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book Review: "Sweet Talk" by Stephanie Vaughn

As an avid reader generally, and good Cornell alum particularly, I cultivate in my home library (humble as it is) a catalog of books by other alumni, and Big Red faculty.

As a well-reading Ithacan yourself (don't be humble), you know the stalwarts: E.B. White, Nabokov, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Archie Ammons, Richard Price. (Personally, I would add Albert Goldbarth, one of America's greatest poets, and my funniest teacher.)

Among newcomers, most prominent is Tea Obreht (MFA, Cornell 2009), whose 2011 debut, "The Tiger's Wife," was named a top-five novel of the year by the New York Times.

No doubt, there are many more I don't know. Which means they must not be as good, right?

Not necessarily. Stephanie Vaughn teaches at Cornell, and has for a long time, and her book of short stories, "Sweet Talk", unknown to me until now, is splendid.

So it must be new, if unknown?

Yes and no. The book is a re-release. It was published in 1990, and has long been out of print.

Who rediscovered it, I don't know. But they're to be commended and thanked.

Research shows that "Sweet Talk" got good notice when first published. Critics praised Ms. Vaughn, and connected her to the popular "minimalist" movement of the time. She was compared to two of its foremost figures, Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore (both of whom, coincidently, like Ms.Vaughn, lived in and wrote about upstate New York).

The critiques and comparisons, heady as they were, should have helped Ms. Vaughn's career. Apparently, they didn't. She never published another book.

It might be that the critics missed the mark, and though well-meaning, sold Ms. Vaughn short, not reflecting her true strengths.

In truth, Ms. Vaughn's work is quite dissimilar to the minimalists. Their so-called "KMart Lit" was unadorned fare about ordinary people in circumstances generally ranging from cloudy to doomed. The writing was plain, to reflect the grimness and gloom.

Ms. Vaughn's characters are ordinary, but that's about as far as she goes with the minimalists. Her characters' problems are mundane, but are presented with enough absurdity or complexity (betrayal and lice, in one story; a failing relationship and a broken car radio on a cross-country trip, in another), to make them not deflating, but delightful, at least in the telling.

The minimalists' world is empty bottles, rusty cars, and thrift-shop shoes. Ms. Vaughn's is not so threadbare. But even when she treads there, she is extravagant, as in the start of the story called "Other Women":

Suddenly the world is composed of infinitely divisible parts, and things, it seems,  grow bigger as they grow smaller. An atom, once a tiny creature, is now a giant compared to a quark. And inside the quark, who knows? Maybe a whole universe of colliding specks, some of them red-haired, some blond, some sleek and dusky-skinned, some of them with silicone implants, and some of the plainer ones, like me, still going to the shopping center in thrift-shop shoes.

To put Ms. Vaughn in a school with minimalists is to hold her back. She is scientist, philosopher, poet.

Above all, she is simply a great and painstaking writer. Throughout, in every story, she supplies great sentences. Some are poignant (and scannable):

Then Megan slides into sleep, where she may say something strange or terrible, which no one will hear, a message spoken to herself but kept forever secret. 

Some are plain and clear-eyed, without luster (though not without humor):

Uncle Roofer was a big, friendly, gap-toothed man, a little heavy in the handshake, hot-tempered and smiling all at once. 

Uncle Roofer was a diabetic who drank bourbon.

Uncle Roofer was an alcoholic who ate lithium for lunch.

One day Uncle Roofer and the bourbon and the lithium got into the same car and drove to a Browns game in Cleveland. On the way back, they met a concrete retaining wall.

Last but not least, as seen here, Ms. Vaughn is funny: without sarcasm, slapstick or silliness, thank goodness. She is seriously funny. She made me laugh at a character's death with sounds of the vowels she chose.

Altogether, this is a writer. Cornell and Ithaca would be proud of her, if they only knew her. We hope she will become well-known with these stories, and with new ones, soon.


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