I have mixed feelings about the merits of collections of linked short stories, as opposed to novels. A short story collection is legitimately free from the need to function as a single work. And short stories can explore multiple perspectives on characters and events in a way that’s difficult for a (conventionally structured, anyway) novel. On the the other hand, if the components of the book are short stories, not chapters, then they need to be able to stand on their own as such.
Judged this way, Soft Maniacs is partially successful. The evolving characters of Jody and Katy are explored through the first-person narration of men involved with them. The best of these stories explore the tension between naturalistic and surrealistic storytelling in lean, direct prose and dialogue. (It should probably be noted — regardless of whether you view it as an asset or detriment — that they’re also mostly pretty dirty.) Estep has a real knack for arresting openings, like
When my wife dumped me, I quite my job at the box factory, left Cleveland, and wandered for a few months. I didn’t like my wife that much anyway. And I hated Cleveland.
I had a rambing apartment in Brooklyn and I fucked my girlfriend Jody in every part of it. So did a lot of other people.
Sometimes I can’t believe the shit that comes out ofmy teeth. When I’m flossing I mean. Huge helpings of white gunk. Amazing that that kind of thing can be in there, in my own goddamned mouth, and I don’t even know about it.
But the book is let down by the concluding story “One of Us”, which revisits the territory of “Tools,” with some unconvincing twists that (it seems to me) are designed to provide exactly the sort of overall thematic linkage that a collection of linked short stories doesn’t actually need.
needs more demons? just a smidge.