Jamie Quatro is having a very good year.
Brand name literary authors typically publish in the fall, near the gift-giving season. So, every spring publishers roll out short-story collections by not-quite-household names in the hope that the competition for attention will be a little easier. Any other time of year, a story collection without a big name to back it up gets treated like a redheaded stepchild of the industry, generally ignored by bookstores, readers, and the media alike. But in the spring, when the big names are in the off-season, a little book of stories by a little name has a fighting chance. This publishing strategy usually only pays off for one or two collections a year that get a dog pile of critics fighting to praise the collection of the season. Last year, it was Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. A few years ago, it was Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. This year, it is Quatro's I Want to Show You More.
Take a glance at the praise thus far: "The most engaging literary treatment of Christianity since [Flannery] O'Connor," writes J. Robert Lennon in The New York Times Book Review. "Subtle, sexy, and reflective," says the Grey Lady's Dwight Garner. A blurb from author David Means puts her in the cannon of Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, and Amy Hempel. In the New Yorker, James Wood writes, "Who needs the New Testament?" He's actually making a different point, but taken out of context, that phrase hits the mood of these reviews precisely: Who needs the New Testament when you can have Jamie Quatro's story collection instead?
The O'Connor comparison comes not only from Quatro's interest in Christianity, but also her geography. Quatro lives in Lookout Mountain, that lonely northwest corner of Georgia near Chattanooga, and her stories are peppered with settings like Rock City and Chickamauga Battlefield. Like O'Connor, Quatro often writes about people who stray from a Christian path. More precisely, she writes about women who want to sleep with someone other than their husband.
This is risky. Collecting similar perspectives on a particular topic can feel like running on a treadmill, covering the same ground again and again. Quatro uses this repetition of interests to her advantage (another of O'Connor's qualities), mining deeper and deeper into the ecstasies, the anxieties, the guilt, and so forth, of infidelity and faith.
Her first narrator tells us, "I hoped there would be a literal Second Coming and Consummated Kingdom because then the man and I could spend eternity just talking." By the last story, we actually understand her.
To say much else of the collection seems foolish. Consult Lennon and Wood for an embarrassment of riches on Quatro's work.
Better yet, just pick up the book itself. (No book can quite live up to that kind of hype, anyway.) The pacing of the stories is expert. I found myself stealing time and ignoring calls so that I could read just a few more pages, like a furtive lover.
In short: Not the second coming of Christ, but a very good short-story collection.
I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro. Grove Press. $24. 224 pp.
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