Last fall, legendary English professor Chuck Kinder, director of the University of Pittsburgh's writing program, suffered a massive stroke. During his recovery, some of his current graduate students assembled for him a gift of more than private interest. Their self-published book Kinder (pronounced with their teacher's short "i") collects 10 stories by these students, and some of it warrants a look even if you're not the guy who helped them write it.
Several of the stories are what you'd optimistically hope for in a book of graduate-level fiction. In "The War in Florida," for instance, is Julie Draper's sneakily allegorical take on the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq as seen through the lens of a traveling high school track team; it's funny and weird, complete with contraband baby alligator. Similarly satisfying is Travis Straub's deadpan "Hillbilly Ennui in Four Movements" and DovBer Naiditch's knowingly whimsical "Two Stories About Angels." Steve Gillies and Rachel Mangini also turn in credible efforts.
The collection has its rough spots. In Kate Serena Moffett's well-intentioned "This Is What We Do," the story-telling imperative is overwhelmed by the author's mission to document the challenges facing a rape advocate (complete with footnotes). Chris Lee's "Foot Slapping on the Floor (A Novel in Five Pages)," ambitious title notwithstanding, doesn't really cover a novelistic stretch of terrain, and succumbs to melodrama. And Jacob Spears' historical fiction "Ceremony of the Three Flags" can't manage the admittedly difficult task of turning the Louisiana Purchase into compelling third-person narrative.
Meanwhile, at least a couple of stories provide more than you expected.
Katie Coyle's "Tether" wields the technique of inserting into an otherwise realistic story a single fantastical element that's a metaphor for some emotional state -- in this case, having a sister who literally walks on air -- and pulls it off, complete with shock ending.
Best of all, however, is the story containing sentences like: "Oma dreams that night and every night of starving animals. Mangy deer turn up their bones beneath her eyelids, picking through the earth, perpetually frostbitten, and the earth turns up only pine needles and the husks of seeds." Beth Steidle's "Gluttony" is a Donald Barthelme-esque prose poem about anorexia, animals and matrilineal psychology, and its stream of inventive language is constant, alternately luscious and corruscating.
Kinder is available on demand at Pitt's Book Center (www.pitt.edu/~bookctr).