Short story aficionado Larry Gildner has received praise from one of the most heralded short story writers of all time, Nobel laureate Alice Munro, and deservingly so. He has the uncanny ability to create characters who evoke readers’ empathy. His latest collection of stories, “The Capital of Kansas City,” further displays Gildner’s mastery of creating provincial characters and proficiency of the genre.
The first story, “Timmy Sheean Is a Prime Example,” is written in third-person narrative and is chock-full of Missouri argot: “She comes from a mean environment. Ozark trailer trash.” Protagonist W.D. (Wanda Delight) Deschuttes is a 38-year-old single bartender who adores Missouri-born Mark Twain.
The description of the bar, the Triangle, and the characters, including truck driver Timmy Sheean, whose favorite novel is “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and Slim Pickens, a true cowboy, is precise. When Wanda is not tending bar, she teaches composition at a local junior college. She falls for Sheean, who becomes involved with the wrong man: “By and by a man comes around, Guido, he calls himself, whose pointy shoes are always shined and whose favorite personal motto is: Let’s make a connection.” Sheean then disappears for two years and W.D. is heartbroken, but where did Sheean go?
Conversely, “The Capital of Kansas City” has a metropolitan texture. It features Mary Beth Urquhart, a single lawyer, preparing for her big date with a former college poetry professor whom she had a crush on in college. The two reunite when Professor Gerald calls her law firm.
This compulsively readable story — the prose is downright poetic — guides the reader through Mary Beth’s daily routines and her life as a Kansas City lawyer. Gildner artfully builds anticipation for the lunch date by providing a point-by-point description of Mary Beth’s preparation: “She chose a skirt that would show her slim calves.” Mary Beth sings, “What’s the Capital of Kansas City? Count Basie!” to demonstrate her excitement for the meeting in which the couple may perform a duet.
Mary Beth makes another appearance in “Pro Bono,” in which she represents African-American truck driver Marvin Gaye — no relation to the singer — in a discrimination case against Kansas City’s Towers Trucking. Gildner performs a stellar Grisham impersonation, but better, in this page-turner that features antagonist Rust Mills, a typical union man, opposing lawyer Lintz, and two judges — Maas and Reiser.
Mary Beth’s love of poetry is strewn throughout this story: “That night she bought herself a bottle of champagne on the way home and drank almost half of it over chicken breast and Emily Dickinson.” In addition, a poetry professor appears in the trial selection process. Sound familiar?
The final story, “South of Wenatchee,” could be a one-act play starring Aunt Gussie and Ray Wheeler, two septuagenarians reminiscing about the past: They discuss horseshoes and Ray’s tenure in WWII. The dialogue holds the reader throughout this eight-page elegy in which we learn that Wheeler rode bucking horses in his prime and is still a card-carrying member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. The reader also learns that Aunt Gussie was a professional singer, but most of all, the reader understands that everyone must die.
There are additional must-reads in “The Capital of Kansas City,” including “My Mother’s Story,” a first-person narrative that tracks Jack Prus’s search for his paternal father and paternal grandparents, “Tiger Lilies” and “One In a Million,” featuring Mary Beth Urquhart — again.
Wayne Catan has written book reviews for The New York Times, The Hemingway Review and Idaho Mountain Express. This is his first review for the Idaho Statesman. He teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.