Close Encounters, by Jen Michalski

Jen Michalski is a Baltimore writer who had a great year in 2013. I wrote about her amazing novel The Tide King. Her collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now also came out that year, and she was named one of “50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun and won a “Best of Baltimore” for Best Writer from Baltimore Magazine. She is also the editor of the literary quarterly jmww, host of a local reading series, and editor of City Sages, an anthology of Baltimore writers.

Now this year, she has a new collection of short stories out, From Here. It is as a short story writer that I first heard of her. Her short fiction workshops are jammed, and when I took one I could see why. Her generous but incisive comments made me look at my story in a new way and enabled me to strengthen it.

It is an earlier collection of short stories that I’d like to talk about today. My friendship with the author aside, I found these stories astounding. The title is perfect, for these encounters with odd and ordinary people bring us close indeed to their worlds.

Some are children, such as a girl named Lincoln in “The Body” who discovers just that in the woods behind the trailer park where she lives. Some are teens, discovering how to appreciate those who are different. Some are adults, such as Diana Sprigg in “The Assistant”, famous as America’s Housewife, who comes across as a slightly deranged Martha Stewart. And then there is the hilarious “Commencement Speech, Whitney Houston, East Southern University, June 9, 2006″.

Some stories stretch the imagination, such as “In Fetu” where two people, two separate souls, inhabit one body. The accommodations they must make for each other from babyhood on are astutely described. By limiting the fantastic to that single element, making everything else thoroughly realistic, Michalski helps the reader suspend disbelief.

Her sentences evoke an entire world, such as in this excerpt from “The Body”:

The body—was it someone she might have known? There were many characters who swept in and out of the trailer park, boyfriends and drug dealers of some of the women who lived there. These women had the weight of children gathered around them like moths—children who cried, wanted, needed those dim blue flames that lit up only when the women smoked. Men like Harmon, shiftless but virile, lethargic but prone to rage. Dark shadows that moved quickly over the sun in random sequences.

Michalski has a marvelous ability to inhabit each of her characters fully and to find each one’s unique voice. Given a short story by a writer whose work I’ve read, without being told I can usually identify the author. I would never mistake a story by Ron Rash for one by Ryan O’Neill. However, here Michalski displays a chameleon-like ability to take on a new speech pattern with each story. She explores a variety of characters, adapting her style to suit each one. Here is an excerpt from “The Assistant”:

I think these reports of my being difficult are exaggerated. As you know, I am the hardest-working woman in the business. I have to be to keep up my numerous projects that are designed to make your life Easier. Better. Smarter. Of course my assistant will be expected to work as hard as I do.

Even Michalski’s ordinary people become extraordinary as we come to know them. Our journey with each is intense, whether the story is told in few or many pages. I look forward to reading her new collection.

Many of us read classic stories in school, such as those by Chekhov, Faulkner, and Joyce. What modern short story writers have you read?

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