Fortune Teller Miracle Fish : The Short Story Is Back

Someone told me years ago that the short story was dead. Either they were terribly (and thankfully) wrong or poet and writer Cathryn Hankla didn't get the memo. Her new collection of stories, Fortune Teller Miracle Fish is more than alive -- it's kicking.

Like a sauce that simmers on the stove for hours, resulting in a rich reduction, the fifteen stories are character studies shockingly potent for their length. Like Flannery O'Connor, Hankla tells the ordinary stories that are anything but.

I remember upon hearing of the death knell, how strange I thought it was that a format so well suited to our times should be the one to go the way of the typewriter. Still on a shelf or two, but barely considered now that its replacement is in place.

But what is the replacement, really, of the short story? Nothing as far as I can see. And considering the ever-shrinking human attention span, the form seems a better fit now than ever.

If the art is to have a resurgence, it would be none too surprising to me if Miracle Fish was to be the cause of its resuscitation. The collection opens with "Love Bites," a story about love and transformation, as many of the pieces in the book are.

Love of self. Love of another. Transformation of desire. Transformation of context.

In each story, the mundane becomes the center. It too is transformed. A little girl visits the reptile house at the zoo. A couple walks through a miniature Graceland. A young woman runs her father's pharmacy. All of them, like all of us, just trying to save ourselves and maybe one or two others along the way.

But what each story does ultimately serves only one purpose -- to reveal who these characters are. Unlike the fast-paced genre fiction that always seems to enjoy the popularity of the masses, this fully character-driven work employs a pace as brisk as a car chase without the need for the predictable drama.

I read short stories in college because they were assigned to me. I read them in grad school because I had fallen in love with them. I read them now because they are exercises in frugality and precision. Not one word is wasted when so few are allowed.

Miracle Fish is a revelation. You will recognize the characters and the stories. They are exotic only in their familiarity. It's almost titillating to read tales so intimate, like literary eavesdropping sanctioned by the author. If reality shows contained an ounce of reality, this is what they'd look like on paper.

And Miracle Fish is just a taste, just an entrée into an all-encompassing world you will be shocked you were previously able to ignore. Should you need a road map, check out the annual The Best American Short Stories anthologies.

If you are new to the short story, if you think them above or beneath you, if you've never given them a second thought, think of this as an invitation to a genre that will certainly surprise you.

(And if you haven't played with a Fortune Teller Miracle Fish in awhile, it might be time to revisit those delicate, rocking, fickle fishes.)