The One-Two Punch of Story Collections

By Shane Solar-Doherty

“Everybody’s got plans… until they get hit.” -Mike Tyson

In boxing, it’s that quick little number that you do when you jab with your left and cross with your right. You’re not necessarily looking to send anyone flopping to the canvas for the ten count. It’s just a way to say, “Hey, check this out. And I’ve got more of that too.”

In a short story collection, the one-two punch is that package of the first two stories that pins you against the ropes, takes pot shots at your sensitivities, and maybe goes as far as to bite a chunk out of your ear for good measure. If it’s done right, these stories shape the tone, pace, and quality of the entire collection, and ultimately acquaint you with the author’s style.

The one-two punch is what sells me on a collection, and often, it sells me on a writer. Here are my top three one-two packages.

Rock Springs by Richard Ford
Jab: Rock Springs
Crossover: Great Falls
Ford gets us going with Earl and Edna, a couple on the run from the law in a stolen car, with Earl’s daughter bumping along in the back seat. But the car breaks down, and Earl has to go looking for help in a mining town. Great Falls follows up with a story about a father and a son who hunt ducks, geese and fish, and sell their game under the table to a restaurateur. The story, told from the son’s perspective, takes a turn when the father’s suspicions about his wife’s infidelity are confirmed.

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff
Jab: Next Door
Crossover: Hunters in the Snow
With these two stories, Wolff brings us into the lives of characters who live in odd worlds. In Next Door, a man and woman spy on their neighbors’ loveless marriage from their own quiet and dark quarters, where they discuss sex in geographical terms. In Hunters in the Snow, three men embark on a hunting trip that results in one of them being shot. That would ordinarily seem cause for concern, but there are more important matters for the unwounded characters.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Jab: Car Crash While Hitchhiking
Crossover: Two Men
This entire collection leads us through a drug-induced picture of America. Johnson introduces us to the collection’s narrator hitchhiking in the midst of a downpour. He seems to be traveling aimlessly when he’s picked up by a man and his wife. They have a baby in the back seat. The title says the rest. In the next story, the same narrator and his friends discover a non-verbal drunk in their back seat after a night at an event for war vets. The man won’t leave the car, and so they venture out to find where to leave the man off.

Enlighten me. What are some of the best one-two short story packages that you’ve read?

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4 thoughts on “The One-Two Punch of Story Collections

  1. ravi says:

    “Trick or Treat”/”Scarliotti and the Sinkhole” from Padgett Powell’s Aliens of Affection might be the most lethal one-two in my library, with Saunder’s “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”/”Isabelle” as a close second.

  2. alessandro says:

    “The Veldt” / “Kaleidoscope” from Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. I think many of us as students read The Veldt, or at least it was read to me in my 7th grade English class. Thinking back on it, this story is a bit gruesome and psychologically complex for a 7th grader to understand. Never the less! The second story is an argument between 5 astronauts who’s spaceship explodes. They are flung into space yet can still communicate via radio as they float onwards to oblivion and death.

    Rock and Roll Sci-Fi.

  3. Lloyd says:

    Excellent call on Denis Johnson. He is one heck of a short story writer. But even Jesus’ Son doesn’t compare to Tree of Smoke.

    I’d go with Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson for the perfect one-two combo.

  4. Shane says:

    Ravi – I actually haven’t read Padgett Powell (put her on the wish list), but you’re spot on with Saunders. I’d been meaning to grab this collection for months, and your comment reminded me to do just that, so I purchased it in Harvard Bookstore’s used section (I always wonder how people part with story collections). Those first two stories are more than a one-two for anyone who hasn’t been exposed previously to Saunders — more like a stinging kick to the shin, followed by a roundhouse to the jaw. Thanks for sharing.

    Al, you’ve been telling me about this collection for YEARS. I was saying to Mel, I’m totally intrigued by that second story. Next time I’m in Brooklyn, I’m taking this book off your shelf.

    Lloyd, Tree of Smoke sits anxiously waiting for me on my bookshelf — soon, very soon. As for Anderson, I’ve read “Hands,” a really fantastic story indeed. I’ll have to get hold of a copy of Winesburg, Ohio. Appreciate your recommendations.

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