‘The Mary’ by J. Robert Lennon

100 tiny stories in this collection, most doing the work of a far larger piece by some less skilful writer. In ‘The Mary’, which doesn’t even cover a page, a young narrator tells how one spring he made a thing of his daily back-and-forth walk to a “menial office job”, enjoying looking into backyards and “imagining the lives of the people whose houses I passed”. One garden has a large “weatherbeaten” statue of the Virgin Mary, on an outside table, and so our walking worker begins to imagine the kind of family who would have such an ornament: “pious in a rough-edged practical way, unconcerned with the trappings of high-minded, pompous religiosity”. When summer comes, he is shocked to see the statue has been moved in favour of a picnic umbrella and beer cans, then suddenly he realises he has been seeing a Virgin Mary where there has only been a sunshade all along. The sense of shocked readjustment is rendered. His single moment’s sense of the scales falling from his eyes extends to the “humiliating waste of time” at his work, too: “It was not long before I quit”. Perfect modern American Chekhov moment, there. 

Published in Pieces for the Left Hand, Granta, 2005

‘No life’ by J. Robert Lennon

The story opens in a  park, with Edward and Alison sitting in their car, getting ready to join the meeting between prospective adopting parents and children. It starts there, but very soon the focus shifts from the children themselves to this couple and another. Harlan (a Texan judge –“a rich hick”) and Linda Breece happen to have spotted the same cute child, and soon it’s clear a competition has started. And when Edward and Alison are invited to dinner by their competitors, you can expect everything not to go smoothly. Lennon’s skill is in wrong-footing the reader. In his short stories, just like in his novels, he is at his best when crossing genres, moods.

First published in The New YorkerSeptember 4, 2000 issue. Collected in See You in Paradise, Graywolf Press/Serpent’s Tail, 2014