WHY THEY RUN THE WAY THEY DO. By Susan Perabo. Simon & Schuster. 195 pages. $24.
Authors of short stories are a mixed breed of poets and novelists. Working in a condensed format, the best short story writers craft compelling characters, witty dialogue and sentences that sing within a few pages. Think of “Runaway” (or any collection) by Nobel Prize winning author Alice Munro or “This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz.
That short stories are not as widely read as novels is unfortunate because a book like Susan Perabo’s “Why They Run The Way They Do” should be known far and wide. Her 12 stories highlight the frailty of relationships and the remarkable ways we love and hurt one another.
Perabo is at a unique stage in her career with the release of her short story collection in 2016 and a novel, “The Fall of Lisa Bellow,” that will be released in 2017.
She says her writing is strengthened by working in different genres, and while the collection was in the works for 14 years, the novel was completed in a year and a half.
Perabo is writer in residence and professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and she is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The first story of the collection, “The Payoff,” highlights the finite agony and ecstasy of middle-school friendships. Anne and Louise are self-proclaimed “freaks” whose long friendship provides them with a sense of belonging. One afternoon, the girls discover something shocking at their school. Louise devises a way to profit from what they’ve seen and Anne reluctantly goes along, sensing a shift between them.
“She gazed at me impatiently, with the look of someone who in two or three years would no longer want to be my friend. We were two weird kids who had leapt from the ship of fools and splashed blindly toward each other, scrambled aboard the same life raft. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before we leapt again and made for separate shores.”
Perabo says we use stories to comfort us, and this theory is demonstrated in one of the collection’s strongest stories, “Indulgence,” a tale of a daughter and her dying mother. The two women spend a visit together smoking cigarettes and reminiscing.
In “Life Off My E,” a pair of recently divorced, middle-aged sisters are living together and spending much of their time playing Scrabble. A slightly absurd sense of humor runs through the collection, but it’s most evident in the interactions between these sisters. When one, a recovering alcoholic, meets a man from AA, the other sister feels threatened and jealous.
“Sometimes I wished I had a secret society for the things that had ailed me in life, perhaps a group of others who had been repeatedly attacked by dogs in their own living rooms.”
In “Michael the Armadillo,” Carrie and Dan are a married couple with a young daughter whose obsession over a stuffed armadillo named Michael is distressing. Six years prior, Carrie had an affair with a man named Michael, and she and Dan struggled to put it behind them. They thought they’d succeeded until their daughter is given the toy armadillo who she decides to call Michael, triggering the return of an unpleasant memory.
The flustered and repressed parents try, unsuccessfully, to get rid of Michael until Carrie decides to take things into her own hands. “Okay then, Carrie thought. This was how it was going to be. Okay. Accept. Accept and Adjust.”
For readers who do not typically pick up a book of short stories, take a chance on “Why They Run The Way They Do.” Your risk will be rewarded.