Into the Wild
Night Soul and Other Stories (American Literature Series)
by Joseph McElroy
Dalkey Archive Press
$14.95 List Price
It’s best to read Joseph McElroy’s Night Soul slowly, warily even, because you’re never far from an unexpected swerve, a surprising shift of gears, or a disclosure of inconspicuous import. Not all these sly, oblique, yet affecting stories are set in the city, but the mode is always urban to the core—a crowding together of impressions and perceptions not necessarily in harmony, and just as likely to deepen ambiguity as to clarify. Take this portrait of an aggressive stranger on the subway who accosts a fellow New Yorker in “Silk, or the Woman with the Bike”: “To hear her speak, she was quite unafraid. Or it was where she was coming from, a woman almost haggard, almost beautiful. Irritable. Short with him. Not just your blunt city person in passing, and not passing but arrived like a coincidence.” Beautiful or haggard, or both, or neither: The woman’s portrait keeps shifting, revising itself as the agitated phrases trip forward. Yet the description’s fuzziness is precisely what gives it its power, uncanny as the feeling of “coincidence” called forth by the woman.
Like his monumental novels such as Lookout Cartridge (1974) and Women and Men (1987), McElroy’s stories are awash in fragmentary stimuli, as everyone is nowadays, and they impart a sense of wading through a mysterious, ever-changing current. Which is not to say McElroy’s concerns are abstruse or exotic. Family melodrama, the hoariest of genres, provides the framework for stories like “The Unknown Kid,” where an overworked businessman copes with a fraying marriage and his precocious “zombie of a kid whom I sometimes