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The Surf Guru: stories, by Doug Dorst, 2010
Excellent and varied stories, 5*
I was a little leery when I learned that Doug Dorst's new book (after his knockout debut, Alive in Necropolis) was a collection of stories. Too often the skills that make for a good novel -- the world building and extended character and plot development -- don't translate to good short stories. Fortunately Dorst has pulled it off, as I might have anticipated based on the dense yet entertaining prose and density of invention and development of Alive. The variety of setting, structure and theme also keep the reader's interest.
There are a dozen stories in some 275 pages, so most of these really classify as novelas or novelettes, though there are a few genuine shorts (and a few are multipartite, with one or two page sub-stories). Just a sampling:
"The Surf Guru" The unnamed Guru is long past actual surfing, designing and selling the GOO-ROO line of surf gear and clothes, in a very laid back California style, mostly just sitting on a cliff drinking Chianti and overlooking "his" beach where every surfer wears GOO-ROO .... except for the lone red-haired boy, who has his own story line. The Guru has an ex-wife who finds him less fun than his dog does, and two MBAs who run the business. He is rumored to control the tides. Life is slow and settled ...until it changes. Stylistically, the story is broken into chapters varying from a single line to shy of a page.
"Splitters: H. A. Quilcock's Profiles in Botany: A Lost Manuscript Restored, Edited by Jonathan Parker Kingslee, Ph. D." In 1968, the centennial of Hartford Anderton Quilcock, a pioneering botanist of turn of the century America, although one at odds with the academic estrablishment, the son of another botanist of the same generation (and of Quilcock's ex-wife, also a botanist) is attempting to revive interest in an unpublished series of sketches by Quilcock of other "Botanists in the Age of Quilcock". There is an introduction, a sketch of Quilcock's career, and a selection from the 462 profiles Quilcock left (and a rejection note from the publisher these were sent to). The profiles are scabrous and hilarious, and the whole is full of dry wit and laugh-out-loud moments, densely footnoted in a sendup of fussy scholarly writing behind which seethes the passion engendered by the splitter / lumper debate of taxonomists (to split slightly varying organisms into many species, or lump into few), lust, envy (professional and otherwise) and seduction.
"Vikings" and "What Is Mine Will Know My Face" are tales of two f**k-ups (there's just no other word to describe them) named Trace and Phil, and Trace's somewhat more stable and together (ex)girlfriend Mo. Told in casual, innocently profane, first person by Phil, they introduce the reader to the world of those they might otherwise glimpse, for instance, in a broken down van with vanishing funds, on a doomed journey to Alaska ("Vikings") or managing to mess up even doing flower deliveries ("What is Mine...").
Along similar lines, "Astronauts" tells us about Jo, whose squeeze Wayne is in the slammer for assault with a dangerous, whose aging Fiesta is missing reverse and not so hot on fourth (hey, I drove a car like that for a while --good times, good times :-), who is housesitting for a her high school best friend and her yuppie husband and about to take her third and last-chance driving test to certify as a truck driver for a tomato processor -- and proceeds to trash the house, get wasted and have an affair with a coworker the night before the test. Surprisingly, the tale ends on a hopeful note amid the crashing of life and dreams.
"Twelve Portraits of Dr. Gachet" is a series of 12 word-portraits at least inspired by the real-life homeopathic doctor and artist Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, with whom Vincent van Gogh spent the last months of his life. (Van Gogh painted two versions of a portrait of Dr. Gachet, and an etching.) Dr. Gachet was kind of a "doctor to the stars" of the art world of his era, and the story portrays him as manipulative and unstable, feeding off their creativity. Knowing nothing about Gachet other than a quick glance at Brittanica and WIkipedia, it's hard to know where the interface between the real and the story's Gachet is.
"Little Reptiles" is a series of four rather surreal vignettes featuring exotic reptiles in everyday settings.
A sample piece of prose: "... a cold so deep that it would freeze out everything but your purest self, and finallly you'd understand where things had gone so wrong."