America's Form

Dennis Lehane Book Bag

It may surprise some that bestselling novelist Dennis Lehane is a huge fan of short stories. From Andre Dubus to Wells Tower, he picks his 5 favorite collections. His new novel, Moonlight Mile, is out now.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love introduced me to the modern short story. The first story “Why Don’t You Dance?” might be the densest “minimalist” story ever written, a seven-page masterpiece about a brokenhearted guy who puts all of his household possessions out on his front lawn, and a young couple wanders by and thinks it’s a yard sale. And it just gets better from there, story by story, building to the savage grace of the title story. In terms of short fiction in America, this book was an inarguable game changer.

Selected Stories by Andre Dubus

As big-hearted and passionate as Carver’s stories are clinical and detached, Andre Dubus was one of the last great traditionalists in American short fiction. He packed entire novels into 20 or 25 pages. His stories were often epic journeys about working class people caught in moments of extremis. We meet, among others, a father trying to avenge the death of his son, an overweight woman on a lifelong trek to find authentic love, and a deeply religious man who covers up an awful crime. Dubus handled every story he wrote with wit and muscle and endless compassion. When he passed on in 1998, anyone who’d ever read him knew he was irreplaceable.

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

When I was in grad school, if you hadn’t read Jesus’ Son, we had nothing to talk about. This was the book of that time period in my life. A demented, careening, interconnected collection of stories, all starring a “hero” named Fuckhead who stumbles across a landscape of psychic, physical, and moral trauma, where drugged-up hospital orderlies save lives and whole families die in a flash of light and a shattering of glass and metal. And yet somehow—and don’t ask me how because I don’t know—it’s funny and human and written with unmatchable panache.

Lust & Other Stories by Susan Minot

I read Lust 25 years ago and I still find myself thinking about it. These are stories about women who make poor choices, usually involving guys, usually involving sex. The protagonists sometimes seem passive until you realize it’s their acts of witness that make them quite the opposite. The prose is as spare and concise as Carver’s but it achieves a different effect—something dreamy and pointed at the same time, something that is, almost in spite of itself, sexy.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I came upon Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned collection recently and thought it was worthy of all the ones I loved back in college. The title story alone, about marauding Vikings presented in a playfully anachronistic narrative voice, is worth the price of the book. But the other stories are just as good, just as wry and fearless and capable of stopping you cold with a sentence so perfectly chosen and executed it feels like wisdom handed down through the ages.