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Night Train 

Lise Erdrich

 A Cocaine night and a whiskey sunrise, with stops in wistful towns and stations where she had the urge to jump. I am riding the hellbound train,  she confided to her tattered, Five-Star notebook, with a broken heart, a blizzard in my pocket, and a bottle of comfort in my sleeve. "

Reviewed by Tania Hershman

As editor of The Short Review, I am always on the lookout for new voices in short fiction, and I review a short story collection in each issue. This is partly for my own benefit. Reviewing helps me see what I like and, more importantly, why I like what I like, and over the past 13 issues this has had a direct impact on my own writing. Lise Erdrich's debut collection, Night Train, is the latest book that has arrived without me having any idea what I might expect, and the latest book to both stun me into awed silence and set my brain abuzzing at Erdrich's linguistic acrobatics: each sentence original, each paragraph knocking me sideaways again and again, sometimes too much for me to recover and I have to put the book down.

Erdrich, the middle of the Erdrich sister-writers (the other two being Louise the novelist and Heid, a poet)  has published two books for children and perhaps this has freed her from constraints that one might feel in what is called "literary fiction". Reading Erdrich's stories is akin to being on a roller-coaster: you are not sure until you stumble off exactly what it is that has just happened to you. For example, this, the opening paragraph of Vroom:

"Twenty-odd years later when you motor into town there he is again at the stoplight, same as last time, sixth grade, twelfth grade, it's a wonder they passed him: the very wet-chrome fishtail aquamarine 1950s sedan still in perfect running order, the very one, with his mien of a debauched nobleman, idiot savant, long and narrow dot-eyes." 

This is one-quarter of the entire story, under two pages in length, but a whole life encapsulated within. Erdrich doesn't need space: Night Train fits 31 (alphabetically-arranged) stories into 158 pages. The shortest, Well-Adjusted Indiviaul, is just two sentences: "The sun came up, I saw it! After that I fucked up everything but the sun comes up again." To me, this is as powerful as that overquoted Hemingway six-word "story", "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn". 

Erdrich's geographical setting is most often North Dakota and, as a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, many of her stories take place with this community, which was interesting but you do not read Erdrich's stories to learn about the Indians and to pigeonhole her as such would be to do her a grave injustice. You read her stories for something far more universal. One of my favourites in the collection, XXXL, is one of the most astonishing stories about domestic abuse, love and weight that I have ever read, which takes places entirely in the aisles of a supermarket as the main character shops with her new love, marvelling as he doesn't hesitate to purchase "giant foodstuffs":

"Something tells me that underneath everything, as the layers come off day by day, until the day we are irreversibly naked and natural with one another getting showered and dressed for an important occasion, he is never going to come foaming at me like a low-budget horror show, waving a bathroom scale 'trying to sneak some on huh, what do you weigh now, get on here', until there's nothing left to do but poke him in the balls with a toilet plunger, pop his creepy-dirty bad mouth."

Some of Erdrich's stories were too much for me, required too much effort to attempt to decode. But with 31 to choose from, a few less successful is a small price to pay for a collection with such voices and currents.

Returning to the first story in the collection, Attention, told from the point of view of "the author", I see that Erdrich is telling us something at the start, perhaps a warning, perhaps simply a hint of things to come. At the Q&A after "the author" has given a reading, someone in the audience asks a question:

"'How do you think of these things?' and the author explodes in loud delight, laughing. 'Good god how do you not think of these things?' and sees a brick wall of puzzled eyes zooming straight ahead..." 

You may be puzzled by much of "these things" that are contained in my book, Erdrich seems to be saying, but this is what I have to write because this is what I think about and what I must get down on paper. I was sometimes puzzled, yes, but mostly dazzled and delighted at having discovered yet another writer in love with language, a fearless writer who who makes the reader work hard, and, when we do the work,  worlds open up in front of our shining eyes.  

Read one of the stories from this collection in the Newport Review.

Tania Hershman is the editor of the Short Review. Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction. 

Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All  Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"


PublisherCoffee House Press

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Lise Erdrich was born in Minnesota, lives in Wahpeton, North Dakota, and has worked in Indian health and education for over twenty years. A graduate of the University of North Dakota and of Minnesota State University-Mankato, she is the author of the children’s picture books Sacagawea and Bears Make Rock Soup. Stories from Night Train, her first collection for adults, have received many awards including the Minnesota Monthly Tamarack Award, the Many Mountains Moving Flash Fiction Contest, and Best of Show at the North Dakota State Fair, where the story “Zanimoo” was exhibited between a pig and the pickles, jams, jellies and preserves. Erdrich’s essays and stories have also appeared in several journals and anthologies including Sister Nations: Native American Women Writers on Community, and Visit Teepee Town: Native Writings After the Detours.

Read an interview with Lise Erdrich

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If you liked this book you might also like....

Roy Kesey "All Over"

Yannick Murphy "In A Bear's Eye"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Diane Williams "Excitability: Selected Stories"

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