CB Anderson may not be a household name, but she’s hardly a novice at her craft. This sixth-generation Mainer has traveled an unorthodox route from computer programmer to journalist to award-winning fiction writer. In her latest incarnation, Anderson has written “River Talk,” a collection of short stories that are simultaneously rich, taut and spare.
Anderson’s stories are linked foremost by place. The setting is rural Maine, where many of the townspeople work at the local paper mill. Even for those employed elsewhere, the mill is inescapable: The presence of white dust is everywhere, and the stench and haze permeate the air. Against this backdrop, Anderson delivers 17 stories, each its own world.
Many of these pieces are sufficiently meaty that binge-readers may have to recalibrate; reading more than one or two at a sitting may be akin to gorging at a buffet.
In “Tourmaline,” a long-married couple spend their days working in chilly silence – he polishing stones, she setting them. Each Tuesday, they close their jewelry shop and forage in abandoned mines for new stone. On one such trip, Evie, the wife, happens upon a vein of tourmaline, which upends their rigid workaday world.
“Evie couldn’t recall the last time she’d heard him whistle, tried to feel his happiness and came up blank,” Anderson writes. “She was hungry, tired, pleased by the find but wary of the suddenness with which fortune had presented itself.”
In “The Dancing Teacher,” prissy Lenore Denton devotes herself to the training of young girls, accompanying them on piano in her home, purging the first floor of all signs of domesticity. During lessons, her nebbishy husband recedes to their bedroom upstairs, his lone hold-out. Only, one day, he drains half of their bank account and disappears, without a word.
“In forty-one years of marriage Arnie had never done an unpredictable thing,” Anderson says. “He’d be seventy in March! Besides, if anyone were to leave, it would be she, not Arnie. Not that she thought much about that anymore.”
In these and other stories, marriage suffers an array of indignities, some quietly, others less so.
What Anderson portrays so deftly are the undercurrents that hover just beneath the surface of these troubled lives.
Separation and divorce play large roles in the domestic landscape of “River Talk,” though they don’t always lighten the load.
Instead they offer different vantage points, incremental upgrades for the lingering resentments that never quite resolve.
Other entries in the collection include war stories, both literal and metaphorical.
In “Baker’s Helper,” an anorexic girl visits a bakery each day, always leaving empty-handed. The baker’s assistant becomes fixated on helping “the girl who doesn’t eat,” haunted by her presence.
This piece of flash fiction, barely three pages, about longing and empathy, is a tiny gem.
Anderson plies her trade in the most elemental, fat-free manner.
Hers are not stories of high drama or grand ambitions; they’re universal tales of ordinary heartbreak, of small triumphs and moving on.
Add a visceral tension between characters that seems spring-loaded, and it’s all the drama one needs.
Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews for numerous publications. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.