“Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes”
Love the short story for what it is: a handful of glorious pages that take you someplace you never knew you wanted to go. Ann Patchett
Few people appreciate the short story although most are better written and clearly demand less of our time and attention than the novel. For me, short stories have always reminded me of those beautiful wooden Advent calendars with small doors. Beginning December 1st and continuing to December 24th, a numbered door is opened to reveal a small present – a ring, a chocolate, a key chain, perhaps, and sometimes a clever clue that if answered correctly leads to a treasured surprise: a scented soap, a kitchen utensil, a candle or a lovely writing pen. Each morning is filled with anticipation and then sheer happiness that lasts all day.
The novel, on the other hand is like the big present on Christmas morning. The two, three or four hundred page book is the big deal, the coveted all important colossal present that we’ve waited for all year. Of course, it’s usually fantastic – appreciated and loved – and generally has a longer useful life than the small Advent gifts received over the previous few weeks or even stocking stuffers but the big gift is a one time deal whereas Advent is usually 24 glorious days long (the length changes year-to-year depending on the calendar). Fortunately, we can enjoy both the small presents and the big presents just as we can enjoy short stories and the novel. How lucky we are!
Short story collections vary but generally contain 8 – 20 short stories from 3 to 40 pages long, all within one bound book. Each short story stands on its own and can be enjoyed while waiting for a doctor appointment, before bed, or on a rainy afternoon curled up on the couch. If a reader has to abandon the book for any length of time, it’s easier to pick up where a short story left off than to figure out where the novel left off at the last sitting. There are also fewer loose ends, secondary or tertiary plots, or structural weaknesses in a short story compared to most novels which is immensely satisfying to readers who just want a good hit.
Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes by Merrill Feitell was published in 2004 and awarded the Iowa Short Story Fiction Award. A collection of eight short stories, the book is a brilliant collection of funny, unpredictable, and bittersweet stories that tell of complicated relationships, regrets, love, and danger.
Four of the stories – It Couldn’t Be More Beautiful, Our Little Lone Star, Such a Big Mr. England, and Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes – are primarily focused on the family – love, jealousy, resentment, self-fulfillment, and the deep feelings people are often unable to articulate. In Our Little Lone Star, 62-year old Audrey is torn between the husband who has trained her to see danger everywhere and their college age daughter who dares her to be brave and experience life outside the home. A true page turner that will keep the reader on the edge of the chair until the very last paragraph.
The other four stories – Bike New York, The Marrying Kind, The Dumpling King, and And Then You Stand Up – are equally as complicated but with characters who are primarily single contemplating big decisions that were made or are about to be made. In The Dumpling King, 31-year old Caleb is still reeling from a breakup when he decides to throw himself a last-minute birthday party in hopes that his lost love will show up and they could have a do-over.
Across every story, Feitell seems to be telling the reader that people never know if they are making the right decision or doing the right thing. Even a non-decision is a decision and it is only through living that people can make a determination because:
Here, on earth, beneath low-flying planes, there are birthdays, and bike rides, feet slipping into shoes. There are people walking a cold February beach and selecting a flat rock to skip across the sea. They are counting the jumps – one, two, three – as many beats as I love you, as the small silver plane cocks left and disappears from the sky.