Review | Four impressive short-story collections


Jamel Brinkley published his first short-story collection, “A Lucky Man,” to great acclaim in 2019; it won the Ernest J. Gaines Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. His follow-up collection, “Witness” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), looks at individuals anchored by their kin — not just parents, children, siblings and cousins, but longer trajectories of African American ancestry, too. Mostly figurative specters motivate these characters and make them who they are, but “Arrows” does feature a literal ghost. In that story, an adult son, tasked with selling the family home, says to his dead mother, “So you want me to sell a haunted house.” She answers: “Don’t act brand-new, my dear. It would be far from the first time. What old house isn’t haunted?”

Throughout the collection, set pieces of private homes — haunted houses and stonily silent dining tables — are juxtaposed with sites of public meaning-making: hip art galleries, museum parties, lightly political murals. The past is the stuff of performance and possession. In the highly affecting “Bystander,” a mother looks at her angry, anorexic daughter, whose eyes reflect the “weary impatience” of the girl’s great-grandmother, and she sees “an ancestor and an evolvement all at once.”

“Witness” manages to be tonally coherent without the stories ever bleeding into one another; each is separate and memorable in its own right. In the standout title story, the narrator, an unemployed academic, gains a front-row seat to his sister’s troubles: her mysterious medical trauma, her quickie marriage to a slow-witted DJ and her growing obsession with African American history. From fiction to travel writing and colonial histories, his sister “collected as much information as she could, as furiously as she could, about the lives and trials, real and imagined, of Black people everywhere. … Whatever else it was, this new habit was a way to resist being crushed by the altered circumstances of her life.”

The characters in this collection are all witnesses, hesitant but perceptive, observant sometimes to the point of paralysis. By contrast, Brinkley’s prose is confident and dynamic, the details intensely rendered: in the aforementioned “Bystander”; in “The Let-Down,” about a young man’s sour flirtation with an older woman; and in “Blessed Deliverance,” a coming-of-age story about the opening of an animal shelter in the wake of gentrification.

POST AUTHOR: Annie Berke

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