(Spoilers are talked around)
[Lengthy Disclaimer: I met Ian while interning for Gulf Coast Literary Journal when he was a fiction PHD and the journal’s editor and I was a fiction undergrad at the University of Houston, looking to drop something onto the ole CV. I remember being struck at our first meeting by Ian’s guyness. Here was a person who didn’t ornament himself with the baubles that tended to overwhelm my closet at the time. Normally dressed in a natural-toned button up shirt and plain jeans with his hair tussled, Ian was impressive in how little concern he had about impressing anyone.
Over the next two years during my weekly 2-hour shifts with Ian, we sometimes had the opportunity to talk about writing and although he may not agree, I feel I gained more from those talks than I did in many of my workshops. I also remember Ian for being a rigorous editor, having me repeatedly revise even the shortest of work-related email blasts until it achieved clarity and concision. As a rule, I think the more a person talks about their writing, the less writing they’re doing. Ian rarely spoke about his writing, so I always assumed he was getting a lot of it done.]
I say all this so that you can judge me as you may when I start gushing over how much I loved Ian’s debut short story collection, Everybody’s Irish. For the most part taking place in Illinois and Houston, TX, the book’s nine stories excel in the many ways a short story can. Stansel shows with deftness the possible implications of a single gesture and how quickly, and sometimes slowly, things can change for people battling to maintain their lives.
One commonality between the stories’ protagonists is their own, often crippling, self-awareness. Characters, such as the pilot in the titular second-person narrative “Everybody’s Irish,” operate with the knowledge of the selfish motives of their actions while hoping for spontaneous connections with the closest warm body exemplified by the aforementioned pilot’s hope that “these two groups [young Occupy protesters and middle-aged computer salesman] might merge, that you are all the same in good, drunken basic ways” (187).
Ian read one of my stories when I was applying to MFA programs and remarked on a particular sentence for how much it revealed about the character and how my job should be to elevate the rest of my writing to that level. Reading through his stories, it’s amazing to read example after example of him doing just that, like in my favorite story of the collection (coincidentally the only story to not have been previously published and shows Stansel playing with form) “Introduction to the Author” where we get a clear image of the narrator’s mother when he says that she has “a heart that pumped like a hydrant.” Reviewing the notes from my reading, it’s astonishing how frequently Stansel manages to craft potent sentences that function as micro stories in and of themselves.
The stories’ characters reside in their own heads more often than they would like and suffer for what they often know is a result of their own selfishness. Any happiness characters gain at the end of a story is well-earned throughout the narrative. When Steven, the young boy of “The Ridiculous Future” describes his inability to understand the horror of Anne Frank’s life in a class full of apathetic students, I felt a strong compulsion to reach into the book, strangle his teacher, and present him with a bit of empathy and maybe some My Chemical Romance.
Read this book if you’re a fan of the word microcosm.
Do not read this book if you are prone to crying when books concern themselves with father-son relationships because you will cry [even if you’re at a park and kids are playing on the monkey bars while ducks quack in unison a mere three feet away