A truly satisfying short story has the best elements of both a novel and a poem: In a few pages it fully tells a tale, with phrasing so finely concentrated it opens up memorable emotional or psychological vistas.
The 14 stories in “Damage Control,” Amber Dermont’s first collection of short fiction, offer many such moments. The revelations are varied, as are the locales, which range from a cruise ship in the North Sea; New York; Portsmouth, RI; Edinburgh; LBJ’s presidential library in Austin, Texas, as well as familiar Massachusetts settings such as Cape Cod, Salem State College, and Boston's Children Hospital.
Eleven of the stories have been previously published, in journals such as Gettysburg Review and Tin House. Some have been included in anthologies like "Best New American Voices" and the always-entertaining "Best American Non-required Reading."
“Damage Control” follows close upon the 2012 publication of Dermont’s beautifully written first novel, “The Starboard Sea.” The tone that infused that novel — at once sardonic and elegiac is also in evidence in this collection.
In “Sorry, You are Not a Winner,” Eugenie is a 26-year-old former supermodel turned housecleaner, who now washes windows in some of the same penthouses where she used to party. But there’s nothing usual about this riches to rags story. Not when her sometime boyfriend is also a client, her top priority is her beloved, ailing parents, and her arsenal of survival skills includes an unblinking view of the world. As she tells her occasional boyfriend, “A close friend can’t stand to see you succeed, while an acquaintance enjoys taking credit for your success.”
Most of these stories are written in the first person, which creates an intimacy not unlike listening to the car radio, driving alone late at night. The first-person vantage point also puts you on the inside looking out, and allows you to inhabit the gap between an internal dialogue and an external presentation to the world. For example, the female narrator of “Stella at the Winter Palace” worries that “There was something wrong with me, the same wrong thing that made me a good dancer, extending and contorting the lines of my body, and made me terrible to be around offstage.”
Dermont also knows how to craft a compelling first line. Consider these three very different openings:
“My father died because our house was infested with ladybugs.” (“Lyndon”)
“Malcolm and I stayed in touch only because each of us was privately convinced that the other deserved to fail.” (“Number One Tuna”)
After busting the Andros Boys for scoring an ounce off of Downtown Homeless Pete, we retreated to the roof of the Octagon to smoke the evidence.” (“Camp”).
“Damage Control” is an apt title for this collection. Some characters struggle mightily to untangle a muddle of their own making. Others push back against an overwhelming tide of random events, like the young woman in “Notes Toward an Anatomy of Pain,” who, before discovering a unique way to ameliorate her condition, decides she must “take pain for what it is, a warning.”
One story to the next, the mood can shift from comic to haunting. In “The Splendid Wife,” one of the few stories told in the third person, a detective tries to solve the mystery of why one woman after another — all doctors’ wives — have disappeared from a local park. At one point he wonders if “it was only through their absence that they could ever be appreciated or understood?” His colleagues begin to wonder if he’s the right man for the case, given a tragic incident with his own wife just before the other women went missing.
Damage Control showcases the many ordinary ways a life can fray, and some surprising ways it can mend.
Dermont’s writing can leave you a little off-balance, forcing you to rethink some assumptions you were firm on a page or two before. In the chilling “Afternoons at the Museum of Childhood,” a teenage girl, reunited with her family after months of captivity, carries unshared insights about herself, her family, and her best friend, which are as startling to her as they are to the reader. In “Stella at the Winter Palace,” the elderly Stella initially just seems “all bad wig and loose skin,” but she ends up dispensing random bits of wisdom, like “A first love? … That’s the one you can never keep.”
“Damage Control” showcases the many ordinary ways a life can fray, and some surprising ways it can mend. With a sharp wit and a tenderness that often surfaces unexpectedly, Amber Dermont has created a notable set of stories.
Carol Iaciofano’s book reviews and op-ed columns have appeared in publications including The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, and The Hartford Courant. She is also a co-author of the pop culture computer anthology, “Digital Deli.”
This program aired on May 28, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.