Short stories force us to adapt to a world without explanation. They begin suddenly and end when they feel like it. They tend to be light on fluff and heavy on meaning. Reading one is like reading a book that gets to the point. Reading the right one can change how we look at the world.
The following stories don’t just entertain; they leave lasting impressions. Their protagonists are men who find themselves at a crossroads, whether explicit or implied, and who react in ways we might find strange, shocking or completely normal. It all depends on the reader, which is why these stories hold the weight they do.
You don’t have to be a literature buff to enjoy these; they’re quick reads that won’t eat up your day, and they’ll leave you with an understanding of the iconic authors who wrote them and the timeless themes they explored in their writing.
“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway was the picture of badass intellectualism. A war veteran, journalist, outdoorsman and lifelong globetrotter, he penned volumes of short stories inspired by his reverence for nature and his observations of society at large. He wrote in lean, tight prose — a minimalist style carried over from his news writing that lent itself particularly well to short fiction. Writer Carlos Baker noted that Hemingway knew how to “get the most from the least, how to prune language, how to multiply intensities, and how to tell nothing but the truth in a way that allowed for telling more than the truth.”
In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” Hemingway explores a truth most men find themselves faced with at some point in their lives: Courage defines us as individuals and courage is born out of fear.
The story follows a man, Francis Macomber, on a hunting expedition in Africa. Macomber is humiliated when he runs in fear from a charging lion. The incident leaves him emasculated, a condition made worse by his judgmental wife’s jeering and the presence of Robert Wilson, a fearless hunter hired to guide Macomber and his wife on the safari.
The story quickly becomes a redemption tale as the gravity of Macomber’s situation sets in. He’s determined to shed his fear, to demonstrate courage, not for his wife or for Wilson, but for himself. It’s intensely personal. The reader feels Macomber’s shame and understands his need to face down these insecurities. It’s a condition most men can identify with — the urge to overcome fear and embrace manhood. When Macomber finally sheds his self-doubt and discovers courage, the result is a sudden conclusion few readers will see coming. Hemingway’s ability to convey this situation and the themes that surround it is a testament both to his writing skill and to his personal understanding of the subject at hand.
Buy a copy of Hemingway’s short story collection here.
Hemingway wrote from experience. The man himself, pictured here with a lion he killed on safari.
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger
He’s known primarily as the author of The Catcher In the Rye, but Salinger was, first and foremost, a short story writer. He was prolific in this pursuit, penning dozens of stories filled with solitary anti-heroes, precocious young messiahs, themes of lost innocence and the teachings of Buddhism. He painted vivid cross-sections of manhood and society, drawing on his experiences with love, war, death and women to flesh out the characters and themes that defined his style. Upon Salinger’s death early last year, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik penned a warm farewell to the deceased author, claiming that “no American writer will ever have a more alert ear, a more attentive eye, or a more ardent heart than his.”
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is perhaps Salinger’s best-known and most widely-discussed short story. Told in two parts, it follows a young husband and wife on vacation at a beachside resort. The two are only briefly seen together, and Salinger uses this physical separation to contrast their basic differences as people; wife Muriel is a society girl, concerned with material goods and fully accepting of her surroundings, while husband Seymour is introspective and withdrawn, troubled by some vast phantom concern the reader never quite understands.
In Seymour, Salinger depicts a man we relate to on a level most of us don’t feel comfortable admitting. He’s disinterested and lost in his thoughts. He has a perfectly conventional life just within grasp, but he pushes it away and isolates himself on purpose. His sense of longing is palpable, but what he longs for is nowhere in sight, not even to him. He’s the prototypical Salinger man — quiet but wild, unpredictable and always somehow removed from his surroundings. How Seymour ultimately chooses to deal with his situation — and the moral questions surrounding that decision — leaves the reader wondering what the hell just happened.
Buy a copy of Salinger’s short story collection here.
“Scream When You Burn” by Charles Bukowski
Bukowski held back nothing. He reveled in that fact. A hard-drinking self-declared asshole who embodied the down-and-out blue-collar ideal, he wrote detailed descriptions of his fears, his frustrations, his insecurities and his outrage. “What appeals [about Bukowski],” documentary filmmaker John Dullaghan said in an interview with The Washington Post, “is the anger, his familiarity with the dark nights, and he was not afraid to go to those places.”
Bukowski was raw, uninhibited, and as such he left his readers with the opportunity to know him intimately. But it doesn’t end there — knowing Bukowski inevitably forces readers to examine themselves through his lens.
“Scream When You Burn” isn’t a complicated story. There are few hidden meanings. It never feels ambiguous. And, like all of the man’s stories, it’s greatest appeal lies in its understatement. As novelist Tony O’Neill remarked in a 2007 UK Guardian critique of Bukowski’s work, “What all of [Bukowski's] stories share is a writing style that has been totally pared back, and a view of humanity that is cynical, deadpan, and almost entirely without judgment.”
Told from the perspective of Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, “Scream When You Burn” follows Chinaski through a typical afternoon. A struggling writer in modern day Los Angeles, he exhibits an apathetic malaise reserved for those who just don’t give a damn anymore. He drinks too much and he knows it. He’s a misogynist and he knows it. He’ll always be like this and he knows that, too. He wanders around his apartment analyzing himself and his deadbeat friends with the casual intellect of a man who is so self-aware he’s come to ignore his own observations.
More than just a glimpse into Chinaski’s life, “Scream When You Burn” is a story that forces readers to measure themselves within the context of the protagonist. How different are we from Chinaski? We may not be writers or alcoholics, but in one way or another we all identify with a sense of struggle, a fear of failure and the temptation to stop caring. Bukowski schools us in the pitfalls of vice and the crippling weight of reality, and he does it in a way that makes us reconsider our stations in life.
Buy a copy of Bukowski’s short story collection here.