Sometimes a short story can pack a novel's ambition and weight into 25 or 30 pages of energized prose. Not all short stories have such aspirations. Not all should. But when one of them delivers in this way, it's a wonderful thing.
The final story in "The Home Jar," a new collection from Nancy Zafris, is one of those efficient, memorable gems. "Digging the Hole" bumps around within 60 years of history and crosses several state lines with Jarmilla, a powerhouse of a woman who for years gets paid to retrieve children from their parents and transport them to a "leper farm" in Louisiana (something like an old plantation enclosed by barbed wire).
Long a remorseless person, the aging Jarmilla seems surprised to find herself "lying in bed regretting things: Her son Leonard. A husband who had deserted her. The way the headlights of her Packard had broken through the mist and landed on a little boy, the buttons of his velvet coat fastened up to his chin." One question driving the plot is whether those regrets will amount to anything.
Clearly, "Digging the Hole" is the kind of short story that might lead some readers to say, "This should be a novel." To those readers, let's imagine the author replying, "Why? It's all there."
Zafris was a longtime fiction editor for the Kenyon Review, an admired literary magazine, and writes like someone who has seen thousands of stories, knows how they can work, and sees fresh ground while others till tired soil.
Many of the stories in "The Home Jar" focus on people and places of the Midwest, which Zafris portrays in bleak tones and where interesting, thoughtful characters have complicated lives. Zafris lives in Ohio, and her settings include its cities and small towns. Some stories range across oceans, but none of them does more with place than "Furgus Welcomes You," a wrenching encounter with Angela Dahlgren, a young mother in small-town Iowa.
Beset by family stresses, Angela is jarred when she sees the body outlines of two people killed while changing a tire on the shoulder of a country highway. She thinks, "How could such a thing have happened near Furgus, in the middle of nowhere? Nothing happened in nowhere, that was the point."
One regrettable fact about "The Home Jar" is that the book's first two stories are not among its best. They're solid but not as engaging as others. Readers who press on will be rewarded with places, characters and events that come alive and may live in their memories for a long time.
Nick Healy is the author of "It Takes You Over," a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award and recipient of a Friends of American Writers Literary Award. He lives in Mankato.