It would be interesting to take Bud Smith’s short story collection, Or Something Like That, as a single, sprawling epic. One in which the characters never meet but just happen to inhabit the same universe. The cast of misfits, weirdos and everyday individuals, unaware that they are liabilities to their own happiness, would be an extraordinary gathering of personalities. Smith assumes an extraordinary range of voices and perspectives across his stories. In most of those stories he doesn’t visit those voices for very long. “From the Cliff”, in which a man’s dreams about his long-gone honeymoon make a tragic intrusion on his reality, can be read in just a matter of minutes. That’s not a crime. The only problem with pieces this good being such a concise descent into one abyss after another is that they leave us wanting just one more sentence. Each dark vision of Smith’s, many of them in clear possession of a very grim, grounded sense of humor, brings us into something that is able to speak sharply, give a brief account of an event awash in bizarre imagery and blunt, often bleak punch lines, and then leave after only a few pages of this account. It’s not the stories are lacking a conclusion. Each one is very nicely self-contained. What’s going to drive the reader nuts with Or Something Like That are those stories, and this book has a lot of these, that leave with such a perfectly-realized cliffhanger that we wish there was just one or two more lines of what happens next. Of course, Smith doesn’t give us those extra lines, and all we can do is move on to the next story.
The sense of being cheated (in the best sense of the idea) fades every time a new story opens. One of the strengths Smith shows over and over again in his work is the ability to give us exactly the level of detail we need. It’s true that these stories come and go quickly, but narratives like “Cactus Man” and “Left Cross” also come with an impressive level of small, creative touches in the writing, little bits of personality revealed in every line of a character’s thought process, and it makes the economical nature of how Smith tells a story all the more remarkable. Smith writes knowing he can catch our attention in the first couple of sentences of something as surreal and engaging as “Bugerland.” He also knows that he doesn’t need to spend twenty pages on things that would be nice to read, given his talent, but are completely unnecessary to what he wants to show us. He gets to the point of the story almost immediately, and he doesn’t veer away from that for an instant.
The characters that inhabit Smith’s writing are not by and large remarkable. They can be broken, wonderful, horrifying, unfortunate, humorous, and many other things, but they are not generally extraordinary people. In some of these stories it’s possible that the moment of their lives Smith has chosen to capture is going to be the only interesting thing that ever happens to them. And in some cases, such as the death of childhood as it’s related in “Strange Money”, it’s not even the events of the story that are so compelling. “Strange Money” is a good example of that. There’s nothing particularly unusual about a child who collects offbeat currency. What gives the story the hooks it needs to dig into the reader can be found in everything rolling around in the child’s head that Smith chooses to show us. The best of Or Something Like That reveal deep, rich personalities behind the voices Smith so easily assumes. They don’t need twenty or sixty pages apiece to be memorable.
These are personalities that are often in mourning, and this is one of the other themes of Smith’s work here. “My Brother & Me & Silver Bullet”, “A Letter from Your Secret Admirer” are examples of how many of the characters in Smith’s stories are either reflecting on loss or recounting it for our benefit. It’s not that the universe is out to get these people. It’s just that they screwed up, can’t quite keep their grip on reality or just ran out into the middle of a bizarre traffic jam of bad luck. That’s why perhaps it would be interesting to consider everyone in this book an ensemble cast in a singular universe. Maybe they are. What’s more important is that Or Something Like That is an incredible short story collection, but it’s something to think about all the same.
It’s as possible as anything. Our own world tends to slant towards being a pretty strange, wonderful and horrifying place. Bud Smith reflects that notion in his writing, in the most deeply human, affecting way possible.