A small triumph, a growing awareness, a pleasant irony: these stories draw forth satisfaction.
The nine stories in Sam Allingham’s Great American Songbook are a brilliant array of forms, character and relationship types, prose styles, and points of view. Different though these pieces are, they all explore the sometimes merging themes of identity and the creative process.
Music is, at varying times, either an incidental or a prominent feature in the former music instructor’s work. While music is touted to be “the essence,” silence is sought in several of these stories as a necessary adjunct to creativity. A character in “Bar Joke” exclaims, “Someday I’m going to shut up and it’ll be the happiest day of my life.”
In the title story, the most powerful in the collection, the clarinetist Artie Shaw battles madness during a Pennsylvania winter until “the sound of nothing at all” becomes an ending and a beginning, and brings a peace that jump-starts new compositions. As in music, silence, repetition, pattern, substitution, and imitation become the dramatic structure in some stories, while they are the finer details in others.
“Assassins” and “Rodgers and Hart” offer two variations on the question of identity. The latter is a study in the contrasts, in which each descriptive detail contributes to an impression. In “Assassins,” the four characters are fixed in descriptive detail until Assassin A shoots Assassin D; Assassin A, having killed off someone like himself, “has the strange sensation of merging into himself, like paper folding inward to form a picture that had previously been hidden.”
While these pieces involve conflict or loss or estrangement, their endings are satisfying—a small triumph, a growing awareness, a pleasant irony. In “Stockholm Syndrome,” a conventional third-person narrative, a woman escapes the clutches of a man who she once thought was a victim of the syndrome, but is in reality a potential perpetrator. In “Love Comes to a Building on Fire,” the jilted lover/narrator has a last healthy thought: “When fire comes to a building, Ramona, you have long since disappeared.”
Sam Allingham’s debut collection puts forth nine variants on the short-story genre—and nine reasons for believing there is more to come.
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