Michael Nye. Strategies Against Extinction. Plano, TX: Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012. 238 pp. $14.95, paper.
Andre Dubus was happy when his one novel, The Lieutenant (1967), went out of print. He excelled within the short-fiction form: his collections had thematic glue despite the individuality of particular stories. Typically, the emotional current of great short fiction is inversely related to its word count, and Michael Nye’s debut collection, Strategies Against Extinction, does not simply introduce the reader to roughly a dozen separate lives; it reaches emotional depths not often touched in the short form.
Like Dubus’s work, Nye’s collection is careful without being reserved, mature without being telegraphed. Set in 1952,“The Re-Creationist” dramatizes a man employed as the last re-creationist in Major League Baseball. Don is fed game results through a Western Union ticker, and recreates the drama of Pittsburgh Pirates games on the radio, using “a xylophone hammer, ruler, and a block of wood.” A prerecorded “soundtrack of crowd noise” complements his imitations. He must constantly be ready to “throw in” some story, some movement. Don learns he will be fired at the end of the season, and fabricates a Pirate victory over the Reds. Don’s decision to make a more palatable conclusion for his son Timothy is consistent with his desire to remake the real world.
In “Projection,” a small-town film projectionist falls for a bored college student. Monica soon realizes that Philip is a convenient screen for her real problems. His plan for a wild night with plastic explosives shocks her: “No one actually did such horrible, stupid things.” Nye’s collection reveals what happens when characters actually do make such unlikely decisions: momentary choices that derail established lives. In “A Fully Imagined World,” Kyle has a chance encounter with a former lover while taking his daughter to Cincinnati’s Natural History Museum. Nine years removed, the memory of their one-night stand “had become a physical ache, a dream he could call up and see and touch.” Serena, still beautiful, does not remember Kyle. Disappointed, he sulks, and loses track of his daughter. She is found, but the feeling hits the reader with equal force: how often do we put so much capital in a transient memory?
Henry, the narrator of “Keep,” struggles to understand what control even means. After his mother’s death, Henry allows his mentally ill, thirty-seven-year-old brother, Kevin, to live at his home. His wife hates the idea, and does not hide her displeasure. Nye holds the reader’s emotions in his literary hands in the story’s penultimate act, as Kevin makes a rash decision that puts more than only his life at risk. The decision to end a story collection with the longest tale—“Keep” is a novella—is not a new one, but Nye is a meticulous storyteller, so the reader was already hoping for an extended tale. Yet completion of “Keep” will likely send readers back through the entirety of Strategies Against Extinction to savor Nye’s glimpses of what “is raw, jarring, unexpected, sometimes trashy, sometimes luminous,” as the collection’s epigraph, from Joyce Carol Oates, defines realism. A good short-story collection will leave a reader with a handful of narratives worth remembering; a great short-story collection, like Nye’s, will leave a reader with lives worth remembering.