Story compilations fall short

Short fiction by two gay authors — the established Jim Grimsley and newcomer Craig Laurance Gidney — are now in bookstores, offering readers a diverse — if uneven — assortment of styles and genres.

Grimsley’s “Jesus Is Sending You This Message” is a disappointing collection of short fiction by the talented gay author of “Boulevard,” “Dream Boy” and “Comfort and Joy.” Although it boasts a kind introduction by Dorothy Allison that gushes about Grimsley’s writing, somehow this book never quite excites readers to the same degree.

Grimsley’s theme — as suggested by the title — is about communication: people’s inability to communicate, or miscommunication, and the ways individuals receive messages or have epiphanies. The author’s 16 short stories play with narrative and language as well as tone and form with mixed results. His experimental piece “Walk Through Birdland” features text that has such a poetic rhythm it could almost be spoken aloud. Similarly, “Silence Being Golden,” with its stream-of-consciousness-like paragraphs, is playful even if it searches for a point. But these story-poems feel like inventive doodles.

Grimsley is better with his poetic imagery. His dream-like tale “House on the Edge” includes an arresting line about cutting “open my arm on some broken vase and watch the life spill away,” but the story itself is unremarkable. Likewise, the imagery in the entry “New Jerusalem,” which includes wet potatoes making “oceanic belches” as they are prepared for a salad or a thermos full of “muttering ice cubes,” presents elements of a picnic vividly. But again, these details are rendered more lovingly than the oddball characters that populate this showy tale — one Grimsley dedicates to Flannery O’Connor, who knows oddball characters. The homage falls short of its ambition.

Several stories in “Jesus Is Sending You This Message” are in the science-fiction genre and these too generally lack feeling, even as they embrace serious ethical dilemmas. “Unblinking Eye,” which begins with a man meeting his long-thought-dead friend Roger Dennis, is engaging when Roger asks the narrator for help to quietly leave the country. But once Roger explains why — telling a story about being reanimated by a group of scientists — this tale becomes significantly less compelling despite the subject’s curious responses to the medical team. Another entry, “Wendy,” about a man who creates a young girl, deals with the legal ramifications of what he has done, but it is equally tedious.

The best stories in the collection are the ones that feature gay characters. “The Virtual Maiden,” about a gay man who re-evaluates things when his lover hires a maid, is an absorbing tale that sucker-punches the reader when the maid puts the men’s relationship into bold relief. And “Stanley Karenina” is an amusing entry about gay marriage that takes its cue from Tolstoy’s famous opening line.

When Grimsley pulls readers into his stories — as he does in the hypnotic title tale, about a commuter annoyed by a women preaching about Jesus on his train — there is a real sense of tension. When and how these two conflicting strangers will communicate with one another is fraught with drama. The trouble is that most of the stories in “Jesus” lack this conflict.

In contrast, “Sea, Swallow Me” showcases the talents of Gidney, who, like Grimsley, plays with multiple genres. But most of Gidney’s stories have supernatural elements, starting with the first entry, “The Safety of Thorns,” which features a devil, or perhaps The Devil — a character that crops up more than once in this collection. Giants, monsters, even carnival folks fill this book, which portrays outcasts, outsiders and “others” with sensitivity, if not always sympathy.

In “Etoilate,” Oliver, an African-American queer Goth boy — a rare breed in itself, the book suggests — becomes smitten with an albino he dubs “Silver.” While Oliver searches for Silver, he meets and mates with other gay Goths, all of whom come to a bad end — they explode — when they have sex. Gidney has a point to all this, and it makes this story an above-average entry in the collection.

Another worthwhile piece, “Circus-Boy Without a Safety Net,” opens with a line about Lucifer, but this tale about a young boy obsessed with Lena Horne, particularly in “The Wiz,” impresses because it realistically portrays its main character’s longing to belong in gay culture. Similarly, the fine tale “Her Spirit Hovering” depicts a gay man who is unable to have a relationship because he feels his mother’s judgment — and his shame entwined in that.

Yet as sensitive as Gidney’s writing is in some of his work, there are several stories where he overreaches. “Strange Alphabets” is not poorly written, but this vignette about a penniless Arthur Rimbaud on a train to Paris fumbling with a fellow passenger’s penis benefits little by featuring the famous poet. Furthermore, “A Bird of Ice,” set in a medieval Japanese monastery, seems well researched but is somewhat unconvincing overall.

Like Grimsley’s book, “Sea, Swallow Me” is extremely uneven. The few highlights are weakened by the numerous lows.