American Decameron

  • Mark Dunn
  • M P Publishing Limited
  • 746 pp.

An entertaining and unusual book of 100 short stories, each set in a different year of the 20th century and at least one in each of the 50 United States, is a nod to Boccaccio.

Reviewed by Alice V. Leaderman

Playwright and novelist Mark Dunn conceived a project: write one hundred short stories, each set in a different year of the 20th century. The result, with a nod to Boccaccio, is American Decameron, a collection of stories, five to eight pages each, in which Dunn quickly stands up characters with well-defined personalities who face common and uncommon challenges. The characters, often quirky but usually sympathetic, speak in fast-moving dialogue. Each story is original, and none is repetitive.

Dunn uses regular story form with set-up, action and denouement as well as the vignette: a slice of life without a neat conclusion, but no less interesting. In a few, he tries other approaches. In the most successful and one of the most moving stories, “In Memoriam in Pennsylvania,” (1904) a woman watches her husband’s descent into dementia while he floats in college memories. Less successful experiments include a story told in legal documents, an epistolary story and one that at the last minute wrenches the reader into a complicated nesting of stories.

Dunn’s endings are happy, sad, odd, surprising and very often amusing. A few of the happy ones are a bit forced, such as the reunion between an aunt and her nephew in “Motherly in Georgia,” (1987) and a girl’s success in getting her grandmother’s lesbian lover into her hospital room (1988). For balance, readers need only look at the creepy 1924 story, “Double Faulted in Illinois and D.C.,” in which two upper class young men (Leopold and Loeb) killed fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks for amusement during the same period that Calvin Coolidge’s son was dying of blood poisoning from a blister (true stories).

A finely wrought story is “Locked Out in Texas,” about a man fighting his slide into Alzheimer’s, who forgets, then remembers with joy the combination to his gym locker. In the provocative “Conspiratorial in North Carolina,” set in 1923, members of a jury gradually learn that all of them are gay, which affects the verdict. In a story that surprises, “Gerontoconcupiscent in Vermont,” the reader suspects that an older man who misses sex is about to become a voyeur. Perhaps the most broadly funny story, “Physically Candid in Louisiana,” is an account of two contractors laying a brick patio while trying to feign disinterest as the lady of the house gradually disrobes.

The tone of many of the stories evokes the tall tale, and these are some of the funniest. In the first story, “Arboreal in Texas,” we meet a baby girl, Gail Hoyt, who was blown into a tree, allowing her to survive the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. From that experience she acquired a lifelong love of heights. Luckily, she was adopted by acrobats. In a later story, “Acrophilic and Agoraphobic in Pennsylvania,” she is a flagpole sitter (that being all the rage in 1925).

Dunn’s description of Gail’s salvation, “the swaddled child was deposited high within the brachial embrace of a storm-denuded live oak tree,” illustrates the rather formal and very precise language of a tall tale, which lends credibility and humor. It also illustrates Dunn’s love of words seldom seen.

All the story titles begin with adjectives, unusual or stretched by the author. A few examples: “assisian,” referring to a protagonist who blackmails Lizzie Borden and her sister to acquire funds for the Animal Rescue League; and “poikilothermic,” describing a cold-blooded killer. Some are adjectival phrases, such as “dentigerously fortuitous,” describing a tale of revenge by a dental hygienist; and “rectally remunerative,” referring to a company that makes unusual products. Dunn’s love of uncommon words is evident in the stories as well. Readers who want to join in the fun may look them up, but skipping them will not hinder comprehension of any story.

Dunn’s characters participate in historical events or experience them tangentially or not at all. He does not strain to use newsworthy situations or sociological or economic trends. Popular culture is well-represented, and religion plays a small role. Dunn often gives details of a character’s job, from shellacking buttons to running a creamery to teaching preschool, and this information enhances the sense of historical period. Dunn also crafts stories around issues such as abortion, lesbian and gay concerns, racial prejudice, mental illness, Alzheimer’s, crime and violence, and charity or the lack thereof.

Many of the stories lack historical indicators and could have happened in any one of a number of years, some even in another decade. Likewise, despite Dunn’s pride in having set at least one story in every state (see Introduction), most of the stories give no further geographical or cultural clues and could be set in any state or anywhere within a state. Of course, people and values do not change overnight, sometimes not even over years, and Americans are not so different from one state to another, so this does not hurt the stories — unless one stops to ask, for example, “Why Pennsylvania?”

In the last story, “Convergent in Connecticut,” (2000), many characters from earlier stories are mentioned. Gail, the acrophile, now lives in a nursing home where many of the residents have connections to characters in preceding stories. With a kind of “Kevin Bacon game” exuberance, Dunn ravels up the coincidences. Not all these people were even named in the earlier stories, but that’s not the point. The humor, rhythm and energy of these connections amuse.

In the Acknowledgements, Dunn says the book took two years to write. He did a great deal of research, including persuading some individuals to recount their family histories. Although a little more research might have resulted in more specific geographical settings for some stories, the book is a remarkable achievement, a success by almost any measure.

Alice V. Leaderman writes fiction, hikes, skis, gardens and volunteers with a group that promotes the use of native plants. She lives in Maryland with her husband.

comments powered by Disqus