Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Paul Strohm and the Art of the 100 Word Story

If you want to know about masculinity, music, and aging (and more), then Paul Strohm is the guy to turn to.

The Bay Area scholar, author, wit, and bon vivant has just published a series of exquisite shorts—stories of 100 words that perfectly capture the telling turns of his life, whether it’s styling his childhood friend Billy’s “carroty hair” or partying with the Pixies.

Each story acts as a snapshot, a pivot that defines the act of memory in dashes of details, episodes rising with cinematic and often ribald ironies. While there is a certain trendy novelty to genres such as the six-word novel/memoir or Twitter stories, I find that these forms often rely too much on a joke, a gimmick, or just make little sense (although I like Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes, never used.”)

With 100 words, Strohm manages to stretch out and truly evoke a moment, if not spin a yarn, while maintaining the nuanced hints that are crucial to such a short form.

Strohm is working on a series of 100 of the shorts, and having completed 99 of them, he published nine in the California College for the Arts lit journal Eleven Eleven.

Since the stories are short, I’ll quote the story “Meeting Girls” in its entirety:

My high school friends and I were afraid of girls but thought we should be meeting some. Wilbur (‘Stiff Sheet’) Coultis—a.k.a ‘Coitus’—claimed he knew how. Under his supervision, we went cruising every Friday night in Martin’s Nash Rambler. Seeing a girl walking, we’d slow the car so Coultis could roll down his window and shout ‘Yo, Snatch!’ before we sped away. Our friend Valentine pointed out after several weeks that this wasn’t working, and proposed ‘Hey, BeeBay!’ with no better results. Back at Martin’s we smoked cigarettes and complained about no luck. But that became Valentine’s nickname: ‘BeeBay.’”

Millions of words have been written about this topic, but what more do you need to know? Many a man has cherished such painful, anguished bonding (although mostly in retrospect), and we can only hope our techniques improve with age. But probably not much, as the story points out in the second, more tender, yet still misguided advance.

Strohm is most known for his scholarship. He’s Garbedian Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and has published books such as Social Chaucer. But let’s hope we see the other ninety 100 word stories from him soon.

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