Nearly every novel Louise Erdrich has published began life as a short story. "I am certain that I have come to the end," she explains in the preface to The Red Convertible, her collection of fabulously sexy new and selected tales. "But the stories are rarely finished with me. They gather force and weight and complexity." And then — presumably — they take flight.
This is a fascinating description of a novelist at work, but it sells these short stories short. Compiled from 30 years of work in an enormous variety of registers — from rascally farce to high lonesome tragedy — The Red Convertible reveals Erdrich to be one of America's finest writers of short fiction.
The tales revolve around the folly and fever of desire, the complicated ties of family, the gravitational tug of human weakness. You can count on things going awry in an Erdrich story, often as a combination of the above.
In the title piece, a young Indian man and his brother buy a shiny red Olds together. "I thought of the word 'repose' because it wasn't simply stopped, parked, or whatever," the narrator says about the first time he saw it. "That car reposed, calm and gleaming . . . Then before we had thought it over at all the car belonged to us and our pockets were empty."
In another story, an Indian man is mistaken for a valet. He is handed the keys to a white man's Jeep and drives off into the night. But rather than joyride, or steal, he spends half a day looking in on the man's sad life.
More than anything The Red Convertible is a study in the chaos of passion. Sometimes this arson begins with a handsome man, but more often, at least in these tales, it is a lady. "There is a kind of woman who, though she had been lovely all her life," begins the story Anna, "attains a burst of reckless glory in her late forties." Now tell me you're going to stop reading after that.
John Freeman is the American editor of Granta magazine.