American States In Fiction: Richard R. Becker’s 50 States
In Versions Of The Past: The Historical Imagination In America Fiction, Harry B. Henderson III has referenced the timeless observation of Edgar Allan Poe about the short story form. He writes: “ ‘the unity of effect or impression’ was of prime importance as an effect the short story should have. This unity could be obtained only in works that could be read ‘at one sitting.’ He valued intensity of impact most in short stories.” He also bears in mind Elizabeth Bowen’s view in Collected Impressions, where she insists that “the story should have the valid central emotion and inner spontaneity of the lyric. It must have tautness and clearness…poetic tautness and clarity are so essential to it that it may be said to stand at the edge of prose.” And it would now appear Richard R. Becker had these views in mind when he sat down to write his debut collection, 50 States: A Collection of Short-Short Stories.
Becker’s collection of short stories is an inventive work of literary short fiction which uses various states in America as a canvass for crafting these imaginative stories of staple human characters, tragedy, love and redemption. The stories in this collection vary in length and theme, each a new vista into its own unique world, yet the narratives are all connected by brevity, a central character in the short fiction art form. Indeed, some of its earlier practitioners like Ernest Hemingway were also concerned with compression in the short story. Becker seems to be responding to this call when he writes stories that can be relished in the blink of an eye, in a manner of speaking. For instance, subtitled New Mexico 1955, “Vertigo” is a three-sentence 26-word short story! The narrator says so little, nevertheless, the reader manages to know the unnamed character’s motivation and what potentially follows. “Heights made him feel dizzy, so he jumped. His only regrets on the way down were the people below. He didn’t mean to ruin their day.”
A traveler, strategic communication expert, and a man of several social and professional parts, the author brings his wide-ranging experiences to bear on this collection, drawing us into both familiar and unfamiliar terrains. In the opening story, “Broken People, Idaho 2003,” we see a character that is anguished on many fronts, yet he manages his emotional handicaps in such a way that he becomes a hero and ends up finding acceptance and love once again. “Broken People” is longer than most stories in this book, yet it remains a story with potentials for further telling. Jonathan Cole is broken in so many ways, yet he finds love in the arms of Jessica after his heroic deeds at an accident scene. What the author seems to suggest in this emotional story is quite clear as a conversation between Jessica and Jonathan reveals. ‘“We’re all broken, Jonathan,” she said. “But some of us push past the pain of it so others don’t have to feel our hurt.”’
The theme of disenchantment is what captures the imagination in “The Blue Door, California 2019.” A lover decides to free herself from an emotional attachment, aware that it would break her partner’s heart. But it just had to be done since “she decided she didn’t love him anymore.” The same theme of disillusionment can also be found in “The Best Life, Arkansas 2019,” where the lead character harbors longings for a former girlfriend while sleeping next to his wife.
50 States is a book that thrusts our imagination into our own lives and those around us, giving us a class on how to be better humans as one finds compassionate characters inhabiting some of the story’s universe. Characters and settings are relatable, indeed almost like the man living next door.
Every day people are captured as they navigate the maze of living in a world that can be cruel and kind in almost equal measures. The stories hardly deviate from setout paths, little backstory coming in here and there to foreground the narratives. Richard Becker writes with the freedom that can only be found in a fertile imagination, ranging his thoughts far and wide as depicted in the various aspects of life he captures in his bold literary project. These stories are sad as they are exhilarating. Becker’s triumph is in the depth of his imagination and the reality of the narratives. This collection is a worthy tribute to America.