With “The Bull and Other Stories,” Michael Fine provides fresh evidence that the short-story collection remains a vibrant part of the American literary scene. And with his latest book, this Rhode Island author establishes himself as a master of many genres.
The 10 stories in “The Bull” (Stillwater River Publications, 133 pages. $24.95) are an eclectic bunch, with multiple voices, differing formats and diverse themes. We have the two narrators (or is it really one?) of “When We Were Dead,” a crisply worded, almost phantasmagoric six-page fictional depiction of homelessness that comes as close to capturing that way of life as anything I have ever read. It may be my favorite of the collection, and it has one of the best sentences (and there is lots of competition): “The snow is blue at dawn and then it becomes red and then yellow as the sun comes up and the city fills with busy people who don’t see the colors we see.”
We have Allan, the character in “A Long Way to Fall,” a story about a logger and a giant tree he is hired to cut down and the thoughts running through his obsessive head. We have Asoka Goh, the protagonist of “Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Infantile Liberalism and the End of Democracy,” a clunky title that Fine might have wanted to rework, although it does capture the overarching theme of the story, so omnipresent today in the real world: “The truth doesn’t matter much” anymore, as Goh concludes. The deeper theme, however, is how a man of color – and intelligence and good faith and will – can confront racism and bottomless madness and somehow still prevail.
“The Dream House” drew me in from the first sentence and didn’t let go until the last – writing this a day later, I am still sort of lost in it, in a good way. On its surface, this story is about what happens to ordinary people when they hit the lottery big. We have all read the real-life tales of mansions bought and privacy and sanity lost, of greed and poor choices and nefarious lawyers and accountants. Some of those elements are here, and rightly so, but Fine, as he does in other pieces in this collection, digs deeper and in other unexpected directions. Here, as throughout “The Bull,” the language is simple but elegant, this sentence describing a nursing home, for example: “The home had faint yellow cement block walls and smelled of disinfectant and toast.” And what an ending. I have a good nose for surprises, but I didn’t see this one coming.
Lacking space to critique each of the 10 stories (all good), let me close with “The Failure of Family Medicine.” I was put off initially by the mix of prose and formatted medical recordkeeping, something that Fine, a practicing physician and former director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, knows well. But as I moved through the story, I began to see the raison d’être — unfolding insights, clinical in nature but further illuminating the main character, the “36-year-old English speaking Hispanic female with fatigue and abdominal pain,” as the Progress Notes have it.
“The Failure of Family Medicine” is a tale of desire, romance, longing, rejection and accommodation that I am guessing will be appreciated by anyone who has desired, loved or been rejected — and isn’t that most everyone, by a certain age, anyway? Again, the ending knocked me over, artfully.
Fine has impressed readers with his “Health Care Revolt,” an outstanding nonfiction prescription for how to bring better health and health care to America, and “Abundance,” a novel. With “The Bull,” he brings enviable short-story skills to his oeuvre and affirms his position as one of Rhode Island’s finest writers, one with amply justified national appeal.