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The Bostons


"The Bostons" is the name Maine natives use describe the urban out-of-towners who regularly invade their coastal villages in search of simple pleasures and summer distractions. The interactions of these seemingly disparate communities and the rich cast of characters who inhabit them form the emotional crux of Carolyn Cooke's magnificent collection of short stories, The Bostons.

An exhibitionist society hostess, a runaway lesbian mother, a young girl coping with her first love, a dying man trying to find his last: these are just a few of the wonderfully complicated souls who populate Cooke's collection. The Bostons chronicles the shared narratives of these people, deftly showing us the connections between characters who pride themselves on their differences. Whether describing the shared bedroom of six "dirt-eating" children ("It seemed to be made of girls' dresses, blue jeans and red flannel printed with cowboys and Indians, and everything smelled warm, of wood and sugar and pee") or a young girl recounting her first love ("Buck Burns was the best boy from town, the wildest and the best . . . He was so good to look at, so ragged and unbuttoned, he rose right above all the other boys, who were clean and scrubbed and grateful"), Cooke brings an ear as keen as Grace Paley's and an eye as sharp as Lorrie Moore's to the passions and preoccupations of distinctive yet recognizable communities.

The Bostons deals with the grand themes of New England's impressive literary tradition: desire and repression, society and self, the weight of the past and the pressures of the present. In the ancestral homes of Boston and on the rocky shores of Maine, the passion and nerve of Cooke's diverse and lovable cast inevitably collide with the habits of duty and obedience so tied to the world she depicts. With echoes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Puritan homilies, Carolyn Cooke fuses the voices of this rich region into a funny, generous, and often rebellious collection of fiction.

Praise for The Bostons

"A seductively written, engaging first collection . . . Cooke brings the fully rounded pleasures and character depth of a novel to her interlinked tales . . . Cooke's attractive voice alternately thrusts bluntly and lilts poetically, keeping the reader alive to the shifts of emotional texture and mood that enrich this promising debut." — Kirkus Reviews

"Carolyn Cooke writes wonderful stories, powerfully conceived and executed with a diamond-clear precision." — Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls' Rising, Barking Man, Save Me, Joe Louis, and Straight Cut

"Whether her subject is a girl in love for the first time or a dying man trying one last time for love, Carolyn Cooke evokes with precise passion the contradictions of desire, the sublime silliness and seriousness of human connection. These delicately layered and wonderfully sympathetic stories introduce a community of memorable characters, and they mark a thrilling debut." — Deborah Weisgall, author of A Joyful Noise and Still Point

"The characters in Carolyn Cooke's fascinating collection are so unexpected, genuine, and deftly etched they will leave an imprint on even the most stubborn reader's heart." — Diane Leslie, author of Fleur de Leigh's Life of Crime

"There is a fierce intelligence at work in Carolyn Cooke's striking debut—an eye as exacting as Hawthorne's, a wit as sharp as O'Connor's. Whether an elderly couple making preparations for death or children running amok under the supervision of drunks, the characters who move through these linked stories somehow transcend their small circumstances to speak for all the gorgeous strangeness of the world. Cooke writes with a grace and precision that terrifies as it transports; this book will leave you breathless." — Kate Walbert, author of Where She Went and The Gardens of Kyoto

About the Author

Carolyn Cooke's short stories have been featured in The Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. Cooke, a winner of fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and Yaddo and a graduate of Columbia's MFA program, has published fiction and nonfiction in the Paris Review, Ploughshares, the New England Review, and The Nation. Her diverse journalistic experience includes writing for The Nation, editing for Penthouse, and working "as a muckracker for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a socialist weekly." Cooke is also a founder of Pacific Community Charter School in Point Arena, California, and frequently writes on school reform issues. She lives in northern California with her husband, a poet, and her two children.

A Conversation with Carolyn Cooke

Q) Where does the title of your book, The Bostons, come from?

A) My grandfather made it up, I think. Since he was and is so self-deprecating, he used the term to describe his own kind—summer people, not tourists, who went to the coast of Maine from Boston and New York every summer and hoarded real estate through ridiculously intact generations. They lived an austere, cold-water life there, except they had boats and books, and generally they behaved as if they owned the place. As a Maine native—what my grandfather would call "a Maine girl"—I liked the sense of outsiders in a culture seeing themselves as harshly and critically as they imagined the insiders must see them. Henry James did that, of course, though less in The Bostonians than in The Europeans, in which the Old World and the New spend a few hundred pages gazing at each other with horror and interest. One of my favorite lines in literature is in that novel, where James's narrator observes, "There was something rather hard and narrow in Gertrude, and she never cried again."

Q) How autobiographical are the stories in The Bostons, and in what ways?

A) I grew up on the coast of Maine and in the purlieus of Boston, and was always conscious of how warily those two different cultures regarded each other, yet how similar they were. Circumstances were different, but this had mostly to do with class, that weird distillation of money and history. People are the same everywhere, but it seems to me that New Englanders put an enormously high value on qualities of character that don't do them much good—duty, obedience, loyalty, diligence. I wanted to write about people who try to break away from those habits, who make real efforts to experience radical sensations and who reach for things—ike beauty and pleasure—that they don't quite know how to use. My stories don't usually start with my personal stories. They start with beautiful junk, or with ugly junk, with details that resist but suggest significance.

Q) When did you begin writing?

A) When I was seven or eight. I used to write stories in which terrible things happened to a kid like me. It thrilled me to read them aloud to anyone who'd listen. I was so shy I could hardly speak, but I was a loud reader. I loved speaking in a bold voice that didn't have to be mine. My father died in a boating accident when he was thirty. My family, very tiny, powerful women, always told stories, usually over cocktails, the same two or three stories over and over. The stories were finished works, they were so polished. Always the same words, the same dramatic pauses, the same punchlines. Stories were a way of asking, What happened? What did it mean? Did we do it to ourselves? I learned then that "truth" and "reality" are inventable. They depend on who is telling the story, on the fact that someone is telling a story, on certain recognizable pressures of tone and language and voice, organized into a form that makes life seem organized and believable.

I was a secretive kid, myopic and ratlike. I remember going to a slaughterhouse in Boston, seeing hundreds of cats in dark cages. Somebody said they were chickens, but I knew what I saw—cats: tails, stripes, and yellow eyes. I think that's what writing is—allowing yourself to believe what you see without corrective lenses, to see what you see before somebody tells you what's really there, what a child or a nearsighted person or a sick or damaged person sees. If what you saw with your own eyes made sense—if you agreed with the general opinion of reality—you wouldn't need to write.

Q) Who are some writers who have made an impression on you?

A) I admire fluent, strung-out voices that risk poetry and comedy and are rather dark in tone. Among contemporary writers, the short stories of Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson, Leonard Michaels, Junot Díaz. Among novelists, Joan Didion, Don DeLillo. Rather high-strung narrratives that pull the tune right out of your head. Virginia Woolf. When I was younger, learning to read more greedily, trying to invent a sensibility I could bear to live with, my head was full of men. I read a lot of Updike—particularly the Rabbit books and the early short stories, and Couples of course, which I read with such steamy devotion in the library that the librarian called my mother to complain. Cheever. Poe. Edwin Arlington Robinson, who made such heartbreaking ditties and talked about "the ache to be sublime." I also loved—love—Henry James, who looked at Americans so cleverly, through about three windows. He was a wonderful spy, alien but interested—a real voyeur.

Q) What have you done for work to support your writing habit?

A) In the 1980s I worked at Penthouse magazine—wrote advertising and publicity and was an occasional voiceover on radio. It was a very heady time in the sex business, the very final hours, it turned out, of the sexual revolution! My tuition at the MFA program at Columbia came from my salary at Penthouse. I had to take courses around lunchtime. Those were the days when you could take three-hour lunches and nobody would think twice, they just assumed you were doing coke and having sex. I also worked as an editor and a copywriter at a couple of other magazines in New York, Omni and Avenue. In the early nineties I moved with my husband to northern California, where I live now, and had two babies the way people do here—bellowing undrugged in a cabin in the woods. I worked for several years as an editorial assistant to Alexander Cockburn, the journalist and polemicist, and also as a muckraker for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, an anarcho-syndicalist country weekly put out by the brilliant editor and writer Bruce Anderson.

Q) Do you see yourself as a regional writer—as a particularly New England writer?

A) No. The struggle against conscience and rectitude is the main theme of The Bostons, I guess—though I never thought about that until now. But I've lived in northern California for almost a decade. I live in a town where it's considered rude to ask somebody's last name or where they come from—too historical. I think that's interesting too.

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