Paul McCormack’s All the Lights That Have Shone is a quietly ambitious collection of short stories. To describe the collection as hit-and-miss is a bit unfair; when the stories hit, they hit spectacularly, and when they miss, they miss for grasping slightly beyond their reach. Overall, this is a solid, occasionally wonderful collection.
We are led into the collection by “Iodine,” an achingly crisp character study of a man who lost his sister at sea and risks losing himself with her. The routine moments between characters are colored in slowly throughout the story until even the most mundane conversation is a crushing weight. This theme carries through the collection – in “A Dog Named Supper,” an old man gains a friend or loses his mind, depending on whose point of view you value more; in “The End That Suits You Best,” doomsday arrives not with a bang but with a chore list and a search for internal meaning that evokes some small part of the power of Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”; “The Stars Shone Like Callie” reminds us both of the fleeting nature of memory and its persistence. Huge themes are brought down to human size and wrestled; maybe not into submission, but wrestled nonetheless.
“The Best of Right Now,” the highlight of the collection, is a heartbreaking story about a man who is struck on the sidewalk by a falling child and forced into a celebrity that damages him nearly as much as his injuries. The mental and physical damage he suffers from his brain injury are compounded by the talk show circuit, the handlers, the public’s revulsion at anyone who does not or cannot conform to the role imposed upon them by circumstance. As upwardly-mobile producers and agents use him to advance their own agendas and careers, he is left to bear the burden of his pain alone, ugly and unloved.
McCormack’s work in this collection is at its best when it focuses on the quiet pain of being human. Even in a story like “The Icicle Tree,” which feels a bit overloaded and fights its structure for breathing room in places, gives us portraits of beautifully broken people when it gets that breathing room. The character studies in this collection are worth your time and attention, as is Paul McCormack.
Reviewed by David Perry