Let me preface this review by saying that I’m not a great fan of short stories. That’s a result, I think, of teaching too many sophomore survey English courses where short fiction dominated every textbook every year. And too often they were the same stories—penned by Hawthorne and Hemingway and a handful of others—over and over again. I can’t recall the last time I voluntarily picked up a collection of short stories by choice. So I am grateful to “Bookin’ with Sunny” for putting date of disappearance in my hands. That’s not a typo, by the way. A title without capitalization, just as there’s no need for exclamation marks in any of these subtle, sensitive tales of ordinary people caught in climactic moments of their everyday lives. Not only are their situations eminently readable, but they’re unforgettable. I find myself still musing about Cunningham’s characters long after their stories have concluded.
His range is remarkable. Cunningham captures the elderly, the very young, men and women, the heroes, the nerds, successes and middle-aged failures. One character explains the dilemma faced by each and every one of them. She’s “learned this much: you meet a thousand potential catastrophes a day. Your handling of one small event determines the impact of the next. In theory you should be able to maintain control, to govern your responses, construct optimum results. But the fact remains that every event is a monumental event disguised. It may seem insignificant, forgettable, nothing to fear—no, it’s nitroglycerine.” That nitro moment can be explosive, or it can be a slow fizzle that’s more destructive in the long run. Not tragic, necessarily, but significantly monumental (Cunningham’s italics, not mine).
Although a thematic constancy echoes throughout the collection, the stories are not at all alike. One takes place in a cantankerous nursing home, another in the bedroom of an evangelical preacher, a third in a love-sick adolescent’s mind, a fourth in a cluttered antique store, a fifth in a taxidermist’s creative imagination. There are ten in all, each set in California. But every incident occurs in a separate landscape and explores a different emotional terrain. As the taxidermist does with his animals, Cunningham arranges his characters on dramatic display, fixing their bodies at the moment of a demise of one kind or another. That demise varies from tale to tale, sometimes physical and sometimes emotional, but there’s always one constant. Cunningham and his readers get inside the skins of everyone who populates his stories.
The “Bookin’ with Sunny” copy of date of disappearance comes with a bonus. A limited edition signed by the author, it also includes ink-and-charcoal illustrations by Nathan Shields. These artistic impressions echo the stories visually and capture a sadness that fits the overall tenor of the book. A lonely moon-lit mountain scene, a dropped telephone, an empty plate with an empty wineglass left alongside. Adversity and misfortune woven together, time and again, stringing ten literary gems together. And precious gems they are, these monumental short stories that have made me revisit my long-standing reluctance to read the genre. -A.R.