Stories V! Though labeled "fiction," the stories in Scott McClanahan's Stories V! (Holler Presents) might be based on real experience. Or maybe they're "true" like the scantily clad woman on the book's cover is representative of what's inside. (Not very.) What matters is that these 139 pages, containing 15 first-person accounts of someone named Scott McClanahan growing up and living in small-town West Virginia, are vivid, vital, poignant and funny.
Whether describing his own childhood callousness at the death of a classmate or recounting the bizarre adventures of a seemingly indestructible housecat, McClanahan continues to mine the rich vein of his similiarly slender Stories and Stories II, with simple, slashing declarative sentences: "She just reared back and knocked the shit out of him." McClanahan, who lives in Beckley, W.Va., too often resorts to all-caps for emphasis ("I STOLE IT"). And "Sex Tapes," for instance, feels a bit contrived in its coincidences. But McClanahan more than makes up for such flaws with stories like "Dead Baby Jokes," which in its matter-of-fact exploration of identity crises and existential doubt reads like a modern Gogol gone small-town U.S.A.
Spared. It's another fine collection (on Main Street Rag) from Pittsburgh-based poet Angele Ellis, whose typically short works are always accessible but not necessarily "easy." The narrator of "Coffee, Cigarettes, Gnosis" is a young girl, wishing to be one of the visiting priests her father argues with: "Never one of them, I kept their words, as a servant / hoards crumbs swept from the tablecloth with a silver knife." In "Silver Anniversary," the poet reflects on a relationship by summoning Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, lamenting the loss of "fins that felt like kisses against my flesh, fluted holes in my neck where I grew gills so that I could breathe without surfacing." While the harrowing "Manual Operation" explores the dehumanization that allows torturers their cruel practice, most of these 27 verses delve into more personal experiences with an empathy that never clouds the poet's clear observer's eye. In "Cornucopia," for instance, Ellis evokes a miscarriage with the wonder of one witnessing any other phenomenon of nature.