Impressive short story collections from two Florida writers

Jon Chopan’s “Veterans Crisis Hotline” tells stories of soldiers trying to recover from war; Vanessa Blakeslee’s “Perfect Conditions” juxtaposes the surreal and the everyday.
Published November 9

On Veterans Day, Jon Chopan’s Veterans Crisis Hotline is a stark reminder of what happens to some soldiers after they return from war.

Chopan teaches creative writing at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. This book, his second collection of short stories, won the 2017 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Its spare but evocative prose and well-crafted characters make clear why.

The collection opens with Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, a story that sets up the other 11. Its narrator begins, “Sometimes, when they call the hotline, they want to talk to another vet. They ask for us specifically. They have this perception that only those who’ve seen war can understand the suffering born of it. As far as I can tell, this is a myth. It is, to my mind, like asking the criminally insane to cure each other.”

Despite that jaded crack, in his story there are people who cure each other, after a fashion and in unexpected ways. The narrator is a veteran of the war in Iraq who struggled with life back home but sought help. At first he’s reluctant to work on the hotline, counseling soldiers on problems that range from minor to fatal.

But the work helps to heal him, too. So do two relationships, one with another vet, an amputee determined to maintain his independence, the other with a nurse, a woman with whom he becomes intimate in every way but physically, as she deals with wounds of her own.

The book’s other stories are the experiences of soldiers who call him on the hotline, logged by name and time. Valor is a brief and grotesquely funny tale about a pair of soldiers with no medical expertise trying to cope with another man in their unit who has a bullet lodged between his eyes. Bizarrely, his only complaint is sudden blindness: “I’m fine,” Styza said, “but I can’t see s---.”

In Slaughter, a couple of soldiers newly arrived in Iraq are assigned to load a truck with the bodies of civilians who were killed outside their post by insurgents. The narrator and his friend Bodi are contemplating the task when Bodi notices a woman’s body that’s missing her head.

Bodi goes searching for the missing head, and the narrator helps him on the quest. But another soldier, “this kid, Elliott, who nobody liked,” harangues and insults them. Finding the head brings both a mysterious moment of a grace and a senseless act of violence — a juxtaposition that structures much of this fine story collection.

• • •

People feel they’ve found Jesus in all sorts of places, but a beach in Costa Rica might not be the first place you’d look for him.

In Jesus Surfs, that’s where he — or someone who might be him — shows up, reviving a drowned man, walking on water, speaking Hebrew and confounding the surfers and others in a little beach town called Mal Pais. A black man with dreadlocks, sky-blue eyes and old scars on his wrists, he’s a champion-level surfer no one has ever heard of, a man of few possessions and fewer words.

Jesus Surfs is one of 10 intriguing stories in Perfect Conditions, the second collection by Florida writer Vanessa Blakeslee; she has also published a novel, Juventud.

In many of the stories in Perfect Conditions, Blakeslee renders strange, even otherworldly events in elegantly realistic prose. In Clinica Tikal, an American woman visiting relatives in Guatemala suddenly has symptoms of an ovarian cyst. She’s sent to a remote clinic near the Tikal ruins, where a doctor removes the cyst in a mysterious procedure that leaves her with no incision or pain — a surgery she will almost forget until years later, when she becomes pregnant.

Several of the stories focus on characters who fear an apocalypse — or are dealing with one that’s already happened. Traps is narrated by a young woman who, a few months before, was in college in New York, studying psychology. Now she’s living at her uncle’s remote compound, learning how to grow a garden and fire a crossbow. “The nuke that went off in the city had been a strategic one,” she says, “the fallout here minimal; that alone has my uncle convinced the Deep State pulled a false flag.”

In The Perfect Pantry, a middle-aged woman falls down an internet rabbit hole while looking at food websites. She ends up on a site called MerryPreppers, reading stories like “37 Items to Hoard Before a Crisis.” Martha is recently divorced and still reeling from the crash in her standard of living, sharing a shabby house with her adult autistic son. Pretty soon she’s going to Walgreens at midnight to fill a cart to overflowing, taking a foraging class, buying a dog for protection and contemplating whether to keep her cat in case they need to eat him when, as the prepper acronym SHTF goes, s--- hits the fan. But the apocalypse for her will come from an unexpected direction.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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