Short stories and poetry are deceptively difficult literary forms. On the surface, they have the allure of simplicity. After all, they don’t require the detailed arcs or subplots of a novel. Short stories also need not deal with meter or rhyme. Yet these things also make them so difficult. They require far more exactitude than longer works because, as William Faulkner once said, “almost every word has got to be almost exactly right.”
Thomas A. Hauck’s Public Image: Stories and Poems, takes on both challenges. It collects 24 short stories and 27 poems. Some resonate. Some do not. Yet that should probably be expected in a work with such an array. The variety makes it more likely someone will find something they like and something they don’t.
Perhaps because of his background as a musician in the Boston area — or the knowledge of the fact — a number of the poems feel more like song lyrics. A smaller number are more free form or contain elements or phrasing that, to be fair, are just things I dislike or have never understood about poetry. For devotees or those more attuned to poetry, they may be striking.
One of the strengths of the book is the diversity in the short stories. The subjects and locations range enough that the reader doesn’t feel constrained. Thus, for example, the title story that opens the book is set in a Russian city and tells of a woman whose plan to shoot her abusive husband when he next attacks here is prevented by his death in a way that makes him a hero to the rest of the community. Other stories are set in rural areas, small towns or cities with characters ranging from sympathetic to heroic to a man or woman simply toiling away at their job.
Most of the stories are more focused on how situations affect the people in or perceiving them than the situations themselves. Hauck also tries to expand that occasionally by using multiple perspectives to tell a person’s story without them. “Stella’s Fence,” one of my favorite pieces, consists of interview-like comments from neighbors who have come to dislike their new neighbor, Stella, because she built a fence around her house. This mundane dispute reveals the distrust and rancor that can arise simply from a lack of knowledge or understanding. A similar mechanism is used in “Remembering Bobby Gitteon” to tell of the life of a Marine killed in Iraq. His story is told in pieces with comments from his parents and more than a dozen people who knew him, went to school with him or served with him in the Marines. The same is true of “The Case of Roxanne Wilson,” with explores the mystery of the title character’s disappearance. A variation appears in a commentary of corporate life and infighting in “Spring Green,” which consists of a series of emails starting with one from the president of a multinational corporation and the ensuing reactions in various departments and levels of the company.
Other stories focus simply on the individual character or narrator. The aptly-titled “The Narcissist” takes us inside the thoughts of a wealthy man with a trophy wife attending the funeral of his youngest son. The “E-mail Exchange” is devoted entirely to a woman trying to respond to an e-mail from her brother after the two had a falling out over their father’s funeral. And “Rock Star Dreams” is a humorous account of the night a man decides to impersonate a rock star who’s in town in the hopes of picking up women.
If I have a complaint about the stories it is, as with the poetry, one of personal predilection. Many lack definitive endings. When it comes to short stories, I prefer resolution or closure. In a novel, the characters are sufficiently developed that I can ponder and engage in the possibilities the story creates. While I understand short stories are snippets, it’s that fact that makes my perhaps too unimaginative mind dismayed if it is intentionally left hanging, which Public Image has a tendency to do.
Hauck’s short stories may not rise to the level of a Steven Millhauser and my poetry sense — or lack thereof — may do him a disservice. Yet at least Public Image puts his efforts out there, not confined to note-books or computer discs gathering dust on his bookshelf.
Too much moonshine and crystal meth can take its toll, let me tell you.
Thomas A. Hauck, “Proxima Centauri,” Public Image: Stories and Poems