A literary stampede is one way to describe Susan Perabo’s collection of short stories Why They Run the Way They Do. The ambiguous “they” of her title implicates everyone, for her characters epitomize human anxieties--both warranted and unwarranted--about confrontations great and small, concrete and abstract, and they often inhabit the slightest of moments between the fight-or-flight instinct that inevitably forces events. The result is a story collection that captivates the reader, enlisting them as silent witness to the displayed truth of life’s radical uncontrollability.
The driving force behind such truth is change, a universal subject of innumerable forms that manifests in these tales encompassing diverse ages and social positions. This theme is immediately evident in the initial story, “The Payoff,” where two adolescent girls witness an event that will present to them, for better or worse, truths of adult life. With change comes a sense of loss, and in this case the narrator predicts the likeliness of growing apart:
“We were two weird kids who had leapt from the ship of fools and splashed blindly toward each other, scrambled aboard the same life raft. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before we leapt again and made for separate shores” (p. 14). Themes of change and accompanying loss almost inevitably involve death, a theme that Perabo skillfully addresses in excellent stories like “Michael the Armadillo,” “Indulgence,” and “Shelter,” all of which leave the reader thinking about the story long after closing the book.
The readability of these stories makes the pages turn quickly, and Perabo’s writing contains well-balanced amounts of description and dialogue. There are no dense, overly complicated passages to be found; instead, each story is clear and precise in the execution of its message. This fact does not mean, however, that these stories are overly simplistic: Perabo, like many masters of the short story, realizes the difficulty of mastering language while toying with conventions of form and genre, most prominently reflected in “This is Not That Story,” a tragic tale whose title repeats to simultaneously praise and rebuke imagination and storytelling. Similarly, the cleverly titled “End of Days” witnesses the difficulty of defining oneself, especially in relation to the surrounding world.
Of course, no story collection is perfect, but this one comes closer than many. Even the weakest story in the collection--“Story Goes,” a tale using too many clichés even if attempting to subvert them--is still decently written. The case can be made for taking time to read it, and the case can, and should, be made for reading each of the stories. Multiple readings are encouraged, especially of the title story’s tantalizing glimmer of escape from circumstances, and the collection’s strong concluding tale, “Treasure,” which succeeds in showing how hope prepares us to move forward while coping with the greatest of tragedies and the daily struggles of the ordinary.
The characters of Why They Run the Way They Do face their conflicts and endure; from them, we learn that we, too, can endure. Difficulties are frequently a form of absurdity, and what this collection ultimately reveals to us is hardly an epiphany. However, the stories suggest a truth often difficult to admit or acknowledge, especially when we most need to: that “they”--we--run because we cannot stand still.