"Little Reef" is a book of short stories split into two parts. The first half ‘After Dallas’ contains stories that largely have to do with artistic ambition and mentorship. A couple researching a biography interview a prickly editor about his deceased ex-wife who was an esteemed author, a woman who feels like a failure in life finds an empty sense of accomplishment in her NYC social circle, an elderly mother waits for her sensitive son in a bar filled with colourful characters, the wife of a writer and teacher negotiates boundaries of intimacy with one of his students, an ambitious young writer wins a story contest and makes his first introductions into an established literary social milieu, and a man revisits memories of his best friend from childhood who is dying and harbours a dark inclination.
The second half ‘After Memphis’ is a sequence of stories with a pair of recurring characters who have achieved a level of artistic achievement. An older well-regarded writer Perry and a younger writer Scott are a couple living in New York City who deal over a sequence of stories with family, failing health, the social dynamics of a writing program, working to complete a novel while achieving better health in Maine and losing oneself in Key West. The stories in the first section deal with a wide variety of topics and situations, but many feature characters striving for a grander life of fame and accomplishment. The stories in the second half seem to work as a kind of counterpoint or expansion out of those initial characters. Here Perry and Scott have established themselves in the literary circles they've always dreamed of inhabiting. Over the course of their stories they come to terms with the real meaning of success and achieving one’s own ambitions.
The plot of many of these stories hangs upon the potential for forging relationships that could drastically alter the fate of the characters involved. As desperately as some characters are looking to make connections and align themselves with people they aspire to be, there are others who are wary of the danger that comes from courting admirers. In the poignant story 'Referred Pain' it’s observed that “young people always needed extra attention. They’d lavish it on you to get a tiny part of it back.” There is a neediness here which the admired are right to be wary of. In order to avoid following well-worn tracks which lead nowhere some potential relationships are abruptly cut off leading to inevitable disappointments and scuppered dreams. In another story “Barracuda” it’s observed that “Life got you in its ticking reaches and laughed.”
A tension exists in many of the characters who find it difficult to assimilate the hard nature of adult realities with the dusty dreams of young adulthood. In a strikingly resonant way, Carroll writes “Adolescence had been just an embarrassment and it locked you into making too many romantic, silly statements you lived with forever if you thought about it. You couldn’t overthink it. That way you’d go crazy.” Many of the characters in these stories are in the process of learning to adjust their worldview to a more sensible state of existence that doesn’t stubbornly insist on making wild aspirations a reality. Sensibly, the tone of many stories in this collection suggest snubbing self-flagellation over one's inevitable failings in favour of forging ahead with aspirations that adjust in tandem with how the world responds to you for a more calm and measured life.
There is an economy of language used in these stories which make them expand out in the reader’s imagination to encompass much more than what is on the page. For instance, personalities can be conjured and swiftly dispensed with in the space of a short memory: “Poor Corporal Maynard. Funny thing, he got killed in a silly accident. Some requisitions being craned off a transport dropped on him and crushed him, but the last memory of him was of the kid digging into Leo's armpit and bawling, soaking his undershirt. Had a screw loose, maybe was queer. Or the mother messed him up, smothering him. Unresolved conflicts. Shitty shame.” The power of this lies not only in the succinct descriptive terms chosen but in the skewed perspective of the character's voice recollecting the dead corporal. The assumptions and dismissive attitude suggest a conflicted relationship which didn’t fully appreciate the complexity of the corporal’s personality. However, it makes an attentive reader’s ears prick up and prompts him to envision what has been left out.
One of the great accomplishments of these stories is the vibrancy of dialogue that breathes life into a large cast of characters making them lift off the page and lodge themselves in your memory. Carroll has the ability to convey a rich amount of detail about a character’s position in life through their speech rather than needing to give lengthy background descriptions. He is also able to establish an intellectual and social hierarchy between his characters through pointed exchanges.
Take, for instance, this line: “‘One compromises in every situation in life,’ said Taylor, an Edith Wharton matron now.” Here the gravity of the character’s feeling is conveyed in her earnest statement while simultaneously slightly poking fun at the pretension of this precocious student. The young rattle off prepared deep thoughts which slide into ostentation and which the older characters wryly observe from a distance. Bold ambition-laden statements vie against world-weary experience.
Through representations of cross-generational characters many of the stories convey a sense of the way people’s changing ontological positions throughout different times in their lives maintain equal validity, but jostle against one another. The hopes and desires of youth are treated with equal sincerity when paired against the inevitable compromises and disappointments of advanced age. What emerges is a fraternity of sentiment that all our drive in life is wrapped up in the conflict of our present circumstances. There is something comforting in the notion left after reading these stories that moments of true contentment can be found when the hectares of life can be confidently straddled with a foot planted firmly at each end.
I was particularly struck with some details in this book which create a real emotional resonance for the simple way they pull you into the moment of the story. When Scott brings Perry into the hospital after he has a stroke it becomes a recurring question in the couple’s minds whether what Perry is lying on is called a cot or a gurney. It’s the sort of trivial detail which nags at the mind in a moment of real crisis when there are so many more important things at stake. Also, in this same story it’s observed that “They were both so bored, waiting. Healing was waiting.” The sheer tedium experienced by anyone who has been in a hospital dealing with a critical situation grates so excruciatingly up against the panic one feels at the many possible outcomes.
This collection is also a highly pleasurable read for bookworms and aspiring writers. There are a multitude of sharp-witted funny observations about the state of literature and those with bookish tendencies. Take these lines: “Literature is a sop to the lazies. It makes you feel good about doing nothing but reading, sitting around committing no compassionate acts, watching your surroundings get dirty and disorderly, getting more and more useless as a ‘mind.’” There’s a lot of loving cynicism and knowing nudges in these stories to all us book fiends. When life becomes all about books it becomes increasingly difficult to see what real-life correlation there is between the exterior world and an interior existence lived between the pages.
Personally, I love the way Carroll writes about my home state of Maine in the story 'Avenging Angel' with its early evenings, country trail walks with unexpected encounters and organic food markets. Most of the stories evoke the environments of New York City or Florida, but I can say from experience that he captures Maine particularly well here.
Carroll's stories show a true depth of experience. Although the characters vary widely they are written with a generous compassion and an acute awareness of their particular foibles. The author clearly knows them well. It's being in the hands of such a skilled storyteller that makes these stories such compulsive reads. “Little Reef” is a brave debut book of stories that demonstrate considerable talent.
Here is an interview with Michael Carroll about the book: https://www.glreview.org/article/michael-carrolls-characters-tell-their-stories/