Tampa writer Karen Brown's first collection of short stories, Pins and Needles, comes with an impressive pedigree.
Reading these beautifully wrought, emotionally complex stories, it's easy to see why they have collected literary prizes.
One of them, Unction, was chosen for The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006 anthology, and the collection won the 2006 Grace Paley Prize for short fiction. Brown recently learned that another story, Galatea, which had already won the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, has been selected by novelist Salman Rushdie for the 2008 edition of Best American Short Stories.
Brown, who is completing her doctorate in creative writing at the University of South Florida, has taught there and at the University of Tampa for several years. Born and raised in Connecticut, she has lived in Tampa for more than 20 years.
Tampa locations and landmarks make appearances in some of her stories, but their true landscape is the minds of women in the thrall of desire.
Brown has a gift for capturing in her fiction the essence of desire — usually sexual but rarely just that — so powerful that it makes us do things we know are foolish or perilous or downright destructive. Indeed, that peril makes lust all the sharper. Brown makes us feel that glorious and terrifying sensation of falling and rising at once.
Not that she is writing about feckless party girls. Her characters are smart and self-aware, and many of them are struggling with loss — lost loves, lost children, lost selves. Sex is one component in their desire, but often they are also trying to fulfill, or deflect, another need.
In these women's stories, acting on desire always has the potential for sobering consequences. Lily, the main character of Unction, is a pregnant teenager. "She could not tell you, now, who the father was. There had been a succession of boys at the time. She would leave her parents' house and walk the three blocks to the center of the small town, to the outdoor mall and its fountain, onto the town green's damp evening grass, and meet her friends, and wait for the boys. They would appear like gliding birds in their cars, paint jobs shining from a new waxing. . . . They lived without any fear of death. They grinned and promised a fearlessness that she desired more than the inexpert movements of their hands on her body, their mouths' wet urgency, their rising heat beneath her sliding palms."
Lily's child is not yet real to her; for characters in other stories, missing children are a haunting hole in their lives.
The first line of The Ropewalk is "I never named my daughter." The speaker works as a bartender in a funky little tavern that South Tampa drinkers will recognize. She has a peculiar relationship with its owner, who is wealthy and married and just as leery of emotional connection as she is.
She usually keeps her distance from the bar's customers as well, but she's drawn in despite herself by the latest crisis to strike Darla, a flirty, hard-drinking divorcee with two little daughters. Darla is hardly mother of the year, but when it looks as if she might lose her kids, her desperation touches the bartender despite the armor on her heart.
In Mouth of Friend and Stranger, narrative gives way to a flood of sensory memory as a woman's encounter with a stranger evokes her entire sexual history.
The man is a cipher, a stand-in for every other: "He wore a pinstriped suit. His hair was mussed. At first, nothing seemed to pass between us. He was from Missouri. He was a law student. Or he wrote poetry at Yale. He was an auto mechanic. He sold famous knives."
But the rush of her memories has all the specifics he lacks. It's a chorus of rue and joy, vivid with the sensations of flushed skin and insistent hands, of "rec room shag between your shoulder blades" and the kiss of falling acacia blossoms.
In Galatea, a graduate student tumbles from an impulsive affair — she thinks "that sex might add some sweet dimension of loss and sorrow conquered for a moment" — into an impulsive marriage. Her Pygmalion turns out to be a profoundly odd young man; on their first night together, he takes her to visit an encampment of homeless people.
But their brief relationship does indeed mold her and somehow bring her to life. Even after the loss and sorrow return, a strange sweetness remains.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.