Fidelity, ambition and the decisions that shape our lives are the themes driving Faculty Affairs and Other Stories, Richard Stein’s sprawling and ambitious short story collection.
The collection contains 27 stories that can stand alone, although a minor character in one may be the protagonist in another. While many take place in and around Nashville, Tenn., the settings range widely, from a small village near Kiev to a cruise to South America. Meanwhile, the plots include large subjects—murder, incestuous rape, a deadly car crash—and smaller dilemmas, such as a decision over a new job.
One highlight is “Cornfields,” a story about a 15-year-old boy whose great-grandmother tells him of a Cossack raid on her tiny farming village near Kiev in 1911, revealing a secret she has kept from his mother and grandmother. The story offers a memorable and unsettling payoff.
“Forensics, forensics, forensics” begins in the middle of a grisly slaying and explores why it’s so difficult to get away with premeditated murder, no matter how much caution the killer employs.
The final story offers a sweet, elegiac tale of a son who expects a discussion about mortality when he meets his father for lunch. Talk is not as dire as he fears; his father simply wants to ensure the family dog will be cared for one day, if need be.
Stein includes copious details, particularly in stories dealing with medicine or anatomy. His writing is polished and careful, and his characters are complex and nuanced.
On the down side, his protagonists all have similar voices: matter-of-fact, erudite and detached, even in the throes of passion or while confronting a rapist. Often, word choices seem inappropriate, as when a high school sophomore refers to his older brother’s “ribald talk.” And while Nashville recurs often, it rarely comes alive.
Despite such issues, Stein has a knack for interesting scenarios. While the collection is uneven, many stories offer rewards for short fiction fans.
Also available as an ebook.