by Doug Rennie
(Creative Arts Book Company, $15.95)
S mall animals always seem to be in peril in the short stories of Portland writer Doug Rennie. Frogs, snakes, and dogs are in danger of being squashed, mashed or pummeled. Insects don't fare too well either. This book's second story, "Abby's List," is a short vignette about a girl who keeps a record on her computer of all the bugs she has killed.
Not that people fare much better. The very first story, "Far Andromeda," conveys to the reader the thoughts of a man dying in a hospital. Rennie's short stories are bleak and dark snapshots of people at crunch time. Their setting is the Midwestern-truck-stop-at-three-in-the-morning of the soul.
At first you think these stories are in the Raymond Carver vein, but Rennie's tales are not denuded tableaux but fully fleshed out tales that are interested in getting into the minds of their characters. His stories are more in the spirit of Andre Dubus. One, "Choices," is vaguely reminiscent of the Dubus story that inspired the movie In the Bedroom. In fact, Rennie's psychological acuity causes the reader to wonder if maybe he has made the wrong career writing choice, that he could bring his skills to bear much better on mystery novels, a genre that could use his tough-minded face-off with harsh reality.
The tone of these stories is a little surprising (not all of them are downers, but most are. "Remembering Italy" is a poignant celebration of the little indices of love.) given that Rennie, whom this reviewer worked with in the '80s at a newspaper, is also known as a sports writer, with a long standing column in Runner's World. Some of his archived columns have recently been gathered together for a book. Perhaps with Badlands, Rennie is finally revenging himself on the annoying small animals that cross his path on the jogging trail.
One virtue of Rennie's short stories is that they truly are short. Rennie packs 24 of them into his trim book. They are well crafted, mostly free of the workshop stench, and only occasionally lapse into cliché (page 20: "For what seemed to Merrick a long time, neither spoke"). Just don't read them to your pet. D.K. HOLM