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Review of "Short People"

By Joshua Furst
Knopf, 2003
Review by Tony O'Brien on Mar 4th 2004
Short People

In most adult fiction the subject of stories is the world of adults. Children, where they figure at all, are seen through the eyes of adults; their lives serve to illustrate the concerns and problems of parents, relatives, teachers and other grown ups who populate their world. In his debut collection of short stories Joshua Furst takes a different approach. Short People is a thematically related collection of short stories about children of varying ages, in which the world of the children is foregrounded, with adults seen in a secondary role. It is of course, a distinction that is impossible to maintain. The lives of children and their parents are intimately entwined, and so it is with the characters of Short People. While it might be thought that the task of childhood is growth and maturation, Furst shows that adults too grapple with their own maturity, often under the unforgiving eyes of children whose absolute standards are, after all, the lessons learnt from those same adults. Shawn of This Little Light has internalised his parents' austere moral values, only to find the Mum and Dad are not the paragons of virtue he takes them to be. This realisation is at first devastating, then leads to a resignation that, while liberating, brings with it a profound sense of loss.

There are nine separate stories in this collection, and they cover the lives of children from babies through to adolescents. The world of children is explored through relationships between pairs and groups of friends, and through the family lives of the characters. Children like Evan, of Merit Badge find a coming of age through their peer group. Others, such as the teenage girl in Mercy Fuck have childhood ripped away from them. For the offspring of the dysfunctional Good Parents, childhood begins once their precocious behaviour precipitates a crisis that leads to Mum and Dad's re-evaluation of their latter day Puritanism.

In the final story, Failure to Thrive, the protagonist is a nurse, but the focus of the story is the lives of the babies in her care. Her particular method of saving them from the future she reads in their eyes is chilling and disturbing, the more so for he bland conviction she displays. 

The writing is crisp and direct, and Furst commits himself well to the task of mixing the authorial voice with that of his child protagonists. In a few places the voice slips from one to the other, so that six year old Billy reflects on the fact that 'scientists should be dispassionate', whereas he is sentimental. I found myself wondering what a 'steep oblong angle' looks like, and why an already tense teenage boy needed to grip the wheel 'tensely'.

The stories are interleaved with case histories, the purpose of which is not entirely clear until the conclusion of the book. These are both intriguing and frustrating, as they are not related to the stories preceding them, and they seem to have a didactic function, as if the power of the individual narratives is not sufficient to convey the message that childhood propels individuals ineluctably towards an uncertain future. Joshua Furst need have no such uncertainty. These are compelling stories.

What is satisfying about the stories of Short People is that as a reader you get the sense that they matter. It is often said that American fiction is 'flat', that stories have few significant events and little in the way of epiphany. That criticism cannot be said to apply to Short People. The people are real, the situations disconcertingly ordinary and familiar. Short People will stay with you, and you might find yourself wondering about how grown up children can be, and about the maturity of their parents.   


© 2003 Tony O'Brien


Tony O'Brien, Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland

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