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Short stories that go to uncomfortable places

After a series of Adirondack-themed novels, Tony Holtzman tries short stories with his new collection, “The Strange Malady of Alessandro’s Uncle and other stories.” In the book’s introduction, Holtzman notes that he drafted the first story in 2006 after retiring from a medical career. These stories, then, span nearly 15 years in which Holtzman was also at work on five separate novels, including the Adirondack Trilogy.

Holtzman resides about half-time in the Adirondacks and continues to consider local issues in this new collection. Though only one of the stories is set explicitly in the Adirondacks (“Last Days of Summer,” in Lake Clear), others pick up threads of social class and rural life that weave through his trilogy. As with the rest of Holtzman’s oeuvre, this volume is published by the author as Cloudsplitter Press.

Some of these pieces are offhand or even slapstick; others are searching and uncomfortable. Broadly, they consider aging and the resurfacing of nearly forgotten past, issues which must feel especially personal to Holtzman, who is in his 80s. In the closing story, for example, an elderly man claims to have won the Nobel prize in literature. Like Holtzman, that character is a retired medical professional. And like many of the collection’s personae, the delusional doctor reflects on an uncertain version of the past. “I was able to fabricate,” he says, “to make up stories, to make characters do what I wanted in order to make a point.”

That last phrase is a fair description of Holtzman’s own approach to short story construction. While some writers follow characters through thorny questions, Holtzman manipulates them to make a point. There are exceptions to that norm, and Holtzman does discover vivid characters outside his own experience. When he steps into persona, as he does in the collection’s middle story, “Brahms’ Fourth Symphony,” the idiosyncratic first-person voice (an aggrieved lady doctor implicated in a past lover’s car accident) is a fresh change from the plodding exposition into which Holtzman’s omniscience can settle.

That authorial voice can be strong and unnerving, with an uncomfortable emphasis on beauty standards. More than half of the stories sexualize female characters with painful language like, “shapely legs, a slender waist, and a pleasing bust.” A pleasing bust? My God. “Shapely” and “pleasing” are not specific adjectives. That’s turning a woman into an object measured against one’s own ruler. Holtzman is at least partially aware of this problem — the collection’s two most substantial stories (“Brahms’ Fourth” and “A Foot in the Door”) deal directly with the aftermath of unequal sexual relationships. These are difficult questions, and I give Holtzman credit for taking them on. In these stories, especially, I’m reminded of the self-doubt and unresolved guilt we encounter in David Foster Wallace.

Yet while Wallace uses wild characterization to investigate the psychological mess, Holtzman sticks primarily to narrative. Instead of asking, “How does this make my character feel?” Holtzman moves directly to, “What happens next?” This focus on plot is unsurprising from a novelist. But the contemporary short story doesn’t leave enough space for complete narrative arc, and neat resolution can lead to wooden, pawn-like characters. As Holtzman notes in his afterward, “I was much more constrained in writing a short story than a novel.” Given to his tendencies toward narrative resolution, those constraints don’t play entirely in his favor.

However, it seems possible that Holtzman isn’t even writing contemporary short stories. His pieces come across more as fable or parable, where a fictional environment renders a difficult question in memorable ways. I’ve thought about these stories after putting the book down, especially the #MeToo-influenced piece where a professor forces a physical relationship on his lab tech. When I leave these stories, I don’t recall the expository dialogue or the forced resolution. Instead, I’m left with the discomfort and questioning that means the writing has a life of its own. Holtzman has taken on edgy subject matter, and the stories succeed despite their shortcomings.

You can find Holtzman’s work at local bookstores, and through the book sellers listed on his website, cloudsplitterpress.com.

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