Little Sinners and Other Stories

Image of Little Sinners, and Other Stories (The Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction)
Release Date: 
August 6, 2012
University of Nebraska Press
Reviewed by: 

“. . . a powerful and rare achievement . . .”

We are all little sinners, aren’t we? For the most part, we avoid the big sins: We don’t murder, steal, or commit adultery. But when no one’s watching, when no one’s able to tell, we do some pretty bad stuff. Lies, thought crimes, and other little sins are interwoven in the fabric of our everyday life.

Karen Brown’s Little Sinners and Other Stories is a short story collection devoted to the little sins normal people commit in their everyday lives:

A bored suburban mother skinny dips with a man she hardly knows; a young woman plays along with a lie a recent acquaintance has sprung on her family; two scheming girls invent a love interest penpal to deceive the quirky girl down the street; a wife digging in her garden uncovers the skeleton of a long-ago stillbirth and never tells her husband; a young woman invents her father’s suicide to conceal his abandonment the family.

There is much to admire about this collection. On one level these are subtle character sketches of people we know, particularly younger women.

On another, these are stories of touching, understated sadness. To her great credit, Ms. Brown writes without judgment, heroes, or villains. It is rare for any author—much less a short story author—to create a universe of characters this even-handed.

Little Sinners may be the most realistic and authentically written work of fiction this reviewer has come across in his 40 literary fiction reviews for New York Journal of Books.

Ms. Brown also has a knack for painting a scene with precision. The following description of a slightly rundown cocktail lounge in “An Heiress Walks into a Bar” provides a good example:

“The place was dim. The chair she sat in was damp and sticky with the sloshed liquor of uncountable drunken mishaps. The light came through the front window and made her feel dissolute and pale, like someone who might, according to her grandmother, have crawled out of the gutter.”

Ms. Brown’s scene painting is this good across all the stories—whether describing mossy forest paths, run-down residential streets, or upscale patios with in-ground pools.

On the downside, the stories in Little Sinners are, in certain ways, repetitive. The protagonists are nearly all young adult women in small-town New England and other all-white settings. The lack of ethnic and economic diversity is curious.

Boredom, ennui, and alcohol are at the root of nearly every problem. Male characters are inevitably less developed. Plots unfold slowly and lack big events.

Ms. Brown paints lovely landscapes, but her stories are descriptor heavy, and this makes for slow reading. Her stories recall a bygone era when authors felt an obligation to color every scene and explain every thought.

On the one hand, Ms. Brown is very good at scene coloration; on the other, she borders on overkill. A few times, this reviewer found himself whispering, “Get on with it already.”

The short stories of Alan Heathcock (Volt: Stories) and Josie Sigler (The Galaxie and Other Rides), to name just two, cram twice as much “story” into a page of short story as Ms. Brown.

Even with these flaws, Karen Brown pulls off a Steinbeck-ian trifecta (powerful realism, literary depth, and unpretentious storytelling) with Little Sinners. This is a powerful and rare achievement that defines only topnotch authors.