Occasionally I choose a book purely on whim. I’ve never heard of the book or the author before and decide to gamble seven dollars or so on this unknown entity. I find it refreshing to stumble into a book completely free from expectations and biases with only the information the back cover supplies. Of course, I usually quickly shatter this state by looking it up online about ten pages into the book, but that is beside the point. I’ve found some great books this way that I otherwise wouldn’t have touched and it’s a practice that I have no intention of giving up anytime soon.
What I don’t like to mention is that while this method has uncovered some true gems, it is also a very effective way of finding absolutely disastrous books. Both fortunately and unfortunately, Mary Clyde’s short story collection “Survival Rates” falls into neither of these categories. The Flannery O’Connor award winner is, in my opinion, just okay.
The nine stories contained within the volume, though each different enough to avoid sounding repetitive, have some definite similarities with each other. Among the most noticeable is the concentration on the aftermath. Whether it is coping with a diagnosis or recovering from a breakup each piece gives a glimpse into one, or often several, people’s reactions. The greatest downfall of the collection is most of the time it is just merely a glimpse and not fully a story. There is nothing wrong with not having a traditional story arc but by about the fourth story in it begins to seem like this tendency is less of a device and more of a crutch.
The other main thread in the collection is the southwestern U.S. setting. There is one set in southern California, another in Utah, but most of the stories with a specified location take place in Phoenix, Arizona or one of its suburbs. Normally I’m all for a southwest setting seeing as it tends to be woefully unused in literature, but Clyde’s depiction of it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s not that Clyde misrepresents the area; it’s quite the opposite. The author clearly knows the area very well but for some odd reason seems bent on showing the reader how much of an expert she is by throwing in oddly specific place names. This is something that can be done acceptably when the story is set in a major city like New York or London but for a place like Phoenix, as large as it might be, the place is really an unknown to people who have never lived there. I suppose it could be argued Clyde is trying to educate the readers about the city but these efforts occasionally come at the expense of the stories’ clarity. Because really, how many people who aren’t also intimate with area will know that Smitties is a grocery store or understand all that is implied when a character is described as dressed in clothes from “Biltmore Fashion Park.”
Despite these complaints “Survival Rates” is by no means a bad collection. “Victor’s Funeral Urn,” “Pruitt Love,” and “Jumping” are my personal favorites but most of the others in the collection are quite good also. Each of the stories hover on the edge of greatness and it makes me wish to see another collection by Clyde with her story telling skills better honed. Seeing as it has been twelve years since the release of her first and only collection this may be the only of her writings the world ever receives which would be a shame because she’s not bad; not bad at all.