Discover the short stories of Edith Pearlman

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 13, 2012

“Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories,” by Edith Pearlman. Lookout Books, Wilmington. $18.95.
By Deal Safrit
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — Edith Pearlman turned 76 years old on June 26, and this prolific but little-known American short story writer has given her readers an outstanding selection of her work with the publication of “Binocular Vision,” her fourth collection of stories.
Pearlman’s first published stories, beginning in 1969, were found in such magazines as Seventeen and Redbook. As her writing has progressed, and as her works have become further known, her published work has moved to much more literary and, perhaps, somewhat more obscure, publications. With more than 250 stories as well as a number of nonfiction essays now to her credit, Pearlman still has stories scheduled for forthcoming publication with no sign of letting up. Few short story writers can lay such accomplishment beside their names.
Pearlman has written in quantity and in quality. The lists of anthologies that have included her works, and the list of the literary awards she has won, are dumbfounding. “Binocular Vision” won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Many of us who follow such awards were devastated this year when the Pulitzer in fiction was not given, as we were certain Pearlman would be the winner of that award as well.
“Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories” includes 21 selected stories, several older ones that have never been published, and 13 more recent stories. The stories cover time periods from the present back to Tsarist Russia and geographical areas from the United States to Europe. Many of the domestic stories are set in the fictional burg of Godolphin in Boston, an area quite familiar to Pearlman, as she was raised in Providence, R.I., and has lived in Brookline, Mass., for a number of years. Several of the stories are inter-related, including two set in the Displaced Persons camps in Britain after World War II.
In “Rules,” the setting is a soup kitchen named Donna’s Ladle in the city of Godolphin. Donna must deal with the challenge of those who come to eat, and the sometimes larger challenge of the volunteers who come to serve. One December morning an erect and solemn girl of 7, and an equally solemn woman who could be her mother, appeared in odd, not-of-this-century clothing. As the months go by and the two spend their days at the kitchen, it becomes apparent that they have some small, though insufficient income, yet are content to take their meals at the soup kitchen, use it for reading and study space, but seek no further assistance. The two remain loners amongst the other guests, sitting in the children’s room reading. In the midst of a slight turmoil, the pair becomes involved in a brief, awe-inspiring interaction between a mother and her misbehaving child. And, then, as they came, they are gone.
In the title story, “Binocular Vision,” a young girl commandeers her father’s binoculars and begins studying her neighbors next door. Her obsession grows to the point where she can track their comings and goings, she can predict their hour by hour location within their apartment, and she increasingly hypothesizes about the couple’s life. She is quite taken aback when certain things come to a head, discovering that everything is not always what it appears to be.
Some of Pearlman’s more recent stories have to do with aging and the end of life, unsurprising for a woman who herself is in her eighth decade. In “The Little Wife,” two elderly couples come together for the last time on an island outside of Bangor, Maine. They will spend some time there with their families, as they always have, but for one of them it is the endtimes. And, for the one old man, the one who will not be around much longer, the allure of bacon is overpowering.
In “Capers,” an elderly couple somewhat accidentally falls into a shoplifting routine, one at which neither is very adept, yet their unsuccessful sport becomes the glue that holds them together.
“On Junius Bridge” is set in a small hotel, more of a B&B, in a small European village, where the innkeeper has come to house the odd and the eccentric as they attempt to escape their day-to-day lives, just as the innkeeper has. Things become confusing when a wealthy couple with possible designs on the property arrives, along with several thugs, and the solitary life of the inn, and the innkeeper, is threatened.
In “Girl in Blue with Brown Bag,” a young lady steals an artwork and gives it to her elderly mentor. The gentleman concludes he cannot accept it due to its provenance, and the two then smuggle the painting into a museum to be found at a later date, out of their hands.
Pearlman’s stories cross multitudes of borders, often involving the interactions of the young and the old, or of children and their parents. One story deals with a young girl who becomes separated from her family in Boston, to be reunited at the subway stop. Another deals with aid workers overseeing children in a British DP camp after WWII. There is a story of the first erotic encounter of a young man with his more mature cousin.
Perhaps the most powerful story in “Binocular Vision” is the final one, “Self-Reliance.” Here, Cornelia Fitch, a retired gastroenterologist, moves to a cabin on a pond in New Hampshire where she will battle her cancer alone. She is acquainted with the neighbors, her daughter comes to visit, and she works well with her oncologist. But then …
Short story readers should not pass up “Binocular Vision.” Pearlman is not as widely known as she ought to be for an author with her volume of work, but that is one of the peculiarities of short story publishing in the United States. It is not unusual for a writer who has no novels to slip through the sights of readers, unless they read a lot of literary journals.
Short story collections just don’t have the print runs of novels, and that is a sad situation. So, if you are a novel reader only, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of “Binocular Vision,” set it on your bedside table, and read a story when you are too tired to read your novel. Introduce yourself to some fine, fine writing.