Chosen from Robison's three long-unavailable collections, along with four new stories, Tell Me reflects the early brilliance as well as the fulfilled promise of Mary Robison's literary career. In these stories (most of which have appeared in The New Yorker), we enter her sly world of plotters, absconders, ponderers, and pontificators. Robison's characters have chips on their shoulders; they talk back to us in language that is edgy and nervy; they say "all right" and "okay" often, not because they consent, but because nothing counts. Still, there are small victories here, small only because, as Robison precisely documents, larger victories are impossible. Here then, among others, is "Pretty Ice," chosen by Richard Ford for The Granta Book of American Short Stories, "Coach," chosen for Best American Short Stories, "I Get By," an O. Henry Prize Stories selection, and "Happy Boy, Allen," a Pushcart Prize Stories selection. These stories-sharp, cool, and astringently funny-confirm Mary Robison's place as one of our most original writers and led Richard Yates to comment, "Robison writes like an avenging angel, and I think she may be a genius."
Mary Robison's stories are infused with a quiet menace. The trick of her writing is the way she uses the reader's own expectations to create that sense of unease. Her stories--published over the years in The New Yorker and now collected in Tell Me--are made of handfuls of moments, put together without benefit of the usual revelatory short story structure. In "Coach," a football coach and his family move to a new town and try to fit in. In "I Am Twenty-One," a newly orphaned college student takes an art history exam. This lack of plot makes us yearn for conflict, and we begin to imagine all sorts of things going wrong, all sorts of dramatic turns of event. They don't come, usually, and this dynamic of unfulfilled expectation results in strangely effective stories. Of course, none of this would matter if Robison couldn't write. But she can, beautifully and without showiness. She has a neat way of making her themes resonate across every line of a story. In "Independence Day," a woman splitting up with her husband finds her old life slipping away. At one point, her daughter Hallie rides away from their house on her bike: "Hallie spun off on her ten-speed. The bike made the promising ticking noises of time speeded up, of escape." Robison is the rare minimalist whose bare-bones fiction is actually a pleasure to read. --Claire Dederer