KR Reviews

On Catch, Release by Adrianne Harun

Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. 224 pages. $19.95.

There’s nothing too unusual about the short stories in Adrianne Harun’s new collection except that they’re excellent. Nearly every story is a wonderful achievement, a complete emotional world observed in tight prose and slightly, delightedly misanthropic characterization. If there’s a problem with Catch, Release, it’s its focus on the classic literary short story: the genre that represents the norm in American letters. It’s hard to get readers excited about the norm, even if it’s accomplished extremely well. What makes these stories more exciting than the norm is the tartness of Harun’s subjects.

For instance, she demonstrates an affinity for writing about bad children, mostly daughters but also sons. Children, whether they are young girls suddenly orphaned (“A Dead Man’s Land”) or teenage girls suddenly dead in car wrecks (“Lost in the War of the Beautiful Lads”), begin the stories as unfortunate and beautiful. As the stories unfold, they appear ever more sneaky and unnerving. Lynnie, the mother who narrates “Lost in the War,” eventually reveals that her daughter may have been just a teenager, but she was already rotten inside: “She lied, you know, more easily than she told the truth. She stole whatever she fancied, as well as the less desirable treasures of others. Her capacity for malice, too, transcended any hopes the rest of us harbored for her.” Is it then a relief to Lynnie that her daughter is dead? Harun dares to ask this hideous question in the story, but leaves the answer to the reader, as a writer should.

The collection also favors stories about life in the lower middle class in unspecified American locations, and it has absolutely no interest in modern youth culture. Very little modern technology (smartphones, social media) has made its way into this book, and young adults are not often subjects. Most of the stories are about older people, and a couple are about the elderly; “Temptation of the Tutelary,” a surreal, jumpy narrative, takes place in a retirement home, while “Madame Ida” explores the attempt of a widow in late middle age to remain relevant in her son’s overseas life. When that fails, she must adjust:

Her sole and abiding belief had been in her family, her roles as Jack’s wife and Dave’s mother. Sacrifice? Willing suspension of disbelief? Oh, don’t get her started. But then Ida’s family, that tiny, fragile unit, had up and left her, and now she was, she realized, just like any other disillusioned soul aching from the pronounced hole in her center.

Passages like these cut through the tangle of social pressure, religious tradition, and internal weather to tell an emotional truth about a specific character. Harun’s skill at wielding her words as a blade resembles Alice Munro’s, but her stories are even sharper—shorter, and less refined. That sounds like a negative quality, but it isn’t. “Oh, don’t get her started,” is a move Munro would not likely make, but it leaves a piquancy on the tongue, an enlivening tang that Munro is too genteel to employ.

Sometimes Harun takes her acidity into metatextual territory, as in the title story:

You think this is funny? You think this is play?

It’s all about loss. Don’t kid yourself. Even a simple game of catch is hinged on the moment the ball leaves the glove, the moment it returns. Don’t even try to think this story or any other story is about something else.

If this story had been placed at the front of the collection, the reader might have a better idea of what she’s in for. This paragraph explains Harun’s posture as a writer without ado. Instead, it’s the closing story. This upside-down quality occurs within the stories, too; it’s hard for the reader to find her feet during the first few pages, dropped as she is into a fully formed world, given no patient signposts as to where we are, who’s narrating, what personal connections matter, what the story means. For some readers, this might read as writerly carelessness, or an unwillingness to write in a way that guarantees engagement. But no: Harun is too good for that. She doesn’t want to fool with hand-holding, is all. Why should she?

A few stories in the collection don’t match the others. Three—“Madhouse,” “Pink Cloud,” and “My Sisters”—are just a few pages long, rather than fifteen to twenty-five. “The Farmhouse Wife” is a stunningly executed ghost story, scary and lovely and hard, instead of a non-supernatural literary story like the rest. “My Witness” is a compelling, oddly shaped, surprising story about mistaken mistaken identity (not an error). “Swallow,” an adolescent love story entangled with sibling issues, is . . . confusing, if well-made. These peculiarities give a sense of the collection as a heterogeneous object, but they don’t make it disjointed. Harun’s crystalline observations and knack for complexly flawed characters sustain continuity.

And she develops those characters in such unique ways. In “My Witness,” she builds out the narrator’s snobbery and overactive imagination during a meditation class, in which he fails to conjure a “personal sanctuary”:

I tried a basketball court first, but immediately imagined a group of anvil-headed thugs who invaded and stole my ball. Next, I conjured an elegant city apartment with an amiable doorman who allowed only me to enter the building. This worked for a full three minutes until the doorman inexplicably turned psychotic, acquiring a police dog who chased me into an elevator with no interior buttons. No matter how hard I try to keep things even and pleasant, there’s a tiny but vocal doom-saying part of my consciousness that won’t let my boat float—so to speak.

Is the narrator kind of a terrible person? Oh, yeah. Is his failure to meditate relatable? Absolutely. That, to be plain, is good writing.

Stories of the kind found in Catch, Release may be the standard—the New Yorker story, the Best American story—but the specific stories found here are exceptional. Which is almost more difficult for the reviewer. It’s far simpler to recommend a literary short story collection if it has a hook or a twist, like magical realism or second-person narration, but trying to explain that it’s just very fine writing about ordinary people doesn’t get as far. It’s like trying to be a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll combo in 2018. Rock has absorbed so many strange offshoots (postmodern lyrics, edgy synthesizers, rapped verses) that when a band comes along and plays simple, Rolling Stones-affiliated rock, even if they do it really damn well, they face more trouble breaking through than if they had a gimmick. Harun’s stories are old-school rock and roll done really damn well. We should listen.

Katharine Coldiron
Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, BUST, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com and tweets @ferrifrigida.