JUDGING BY THESE first collections, short fiction by young American and Canadian writers is thriving. ZZ Packer's debut collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, contains intricate, humorous tales about racial tensions, focusing on characters grand who feel themselves to be on the margins in one sense or another. It's far from just a matter of black and white, though; the experience of race is handled in its full, post- colonial complexity. In 'Doris Is Coming' a black girl, back in the early 1960s, is startled when a white Jewish girl comes to her Pentecostal church, and in 'Brownies' a group of black girl scouts are determined to hate a troop of white girls (who 'smell like Chihuahuas'), only to lose heart when they &cover that the girls aren't what they seem. Other characters are outsiders because of their sexuality. In the title story, a black girl and a Canadian lesbian at Yale form an unlikely friendship, equally ill at ease in their Wasp surroundings.
More disturbing by far are Neil LaBute's stories in Seconds of Pleasure. Like the 1997 feature film LaBute wrote and dircted, In the Company of Men, many of these tales explore male brutality towards women, both physical and emotional. At its most extreme, this is unpalatable, shocking stuff. In 'Ravishing', a black prostitute is picked up to be filmed having sex in a rented storage space, then strangled and dumped by the roadside - and the men watch the footage over and over again. More typical is 'Soft Target', a story about an actor who treats women like disposable goods, picking and choosing among what's on offer in the city: 'Maybe this year I'll go with a black one, he thought to himself. Or even an Asian.' But, for all their brutality, LaBute's predatory tales are compelling reading. Not all of his male protagonists are in control. In fact, many are extremely vulnerable, easily thrown off course by their fan-tasies about the women around them. The married man with '2.7 children' in 'Los Feliz' is obsessed by the thought that a woman might be sleeping with the man she brings to a party - who turns out to be her brother ('Who the hell am I that I should be caring if this woman is screwing that guy? I don't know, actually, who the hell I am, I just know that I care').
After LaBute, David Bezmozgis's collection Natasha and Other Stories comes as a relief. Not that it is light reading exactly, but, whereas LaBute's tales tend to be aggressive, Bezmozgis's are melancholy. The seven linked stories are all told by the same narrator, David Berman, who, just like the author, emigrated with his parents, Jews, from Latvia to Toronto in 1980, to escape Soviet-era Me. We follow David as he grows up, from the moment he starts school and begins to assemble a new vocabulary (in the playground he learns 'shit-head ', 'mental case', and 'gaylord'). He picks up English quickly enough, but much in the new environment remains a mystery, especially for the older generations. In 'Minyan' his grand father waits years for a smaller apartment after the death of his wife, unsure of how to get what he needs in Canada: 'The system was inscrutable. At least in Russia you knew who to bribe.'
Some of the stories in Joshua Furst's moving first collection, Short People, are also linked by recurring characters, notably best friends Jason and Billy. As six-year-olds, they create imaginary worlds together - and explore the real one, learning about everything from space and fossils to the wisdom of avoiding the soggy Doritos for sale at the pool. However, as Jason intuitively senses, the knowledge they acquire doesn't just expand the world: 'Jason knows that the world gets bigger, but it gets smaller, too. He knows there are things he does not want to know.' The ten stories in the collection all focus on children - if one takes that to include babies and teenagers. Furst used to be a teacher, and he knows his subject matter well. The excitements and the curious logic of childhood and adolescence are well evoked, but there is also an overriding sense that the world these children are growing up in is no pleasant place to inhabit. This comes across most strongly in the haunting story 'Failure to Thrive', in which a maternity nurse takes the future of some of the most pitiful newborns into her own hands in an effort to 'bring them closer to God'.
The author of Lucky Girls , Nell Freudenberger, is also a former teacher. She used to teach English in New Delhi and Bangkok, and the five stories in her debut collection are set in a vividly depicted India and South East Asia. Many of the characters in these tales face the challenge of adjusting to a new culture, often because of a romantic attachment that throws them into unfamiliar circumstances. In the title story, an American woman's love for an Indian man opens up the subcontinent for her. In 'Outside the Eastern Gate', a woman in her late thirties returns to Delhi from the States to look after her elderly father. Her main ambition, however, is to piece together what happened when her mother left her as a child to drive through Afghanistan to Istanbul with female friend, a free-spirited young photographer. Against the backdrop of a Delhi that turns matches her memories and surprises her, a compelling picture emerges, not just of her mother’s love affair the complex dynamics of her family, past and present