The first thing I ever read by Stephen Dixon was the extraordinary short story “14 Stories.” In it, a failed suicide reverberates through the lives of disparate people on a single city block — a cop, a kid, a cleaning lady, a neighbor — without any of them ever learning what connects them, or even that they are connected. Dixon’s prose — sharp, idiomatic, intentionally and comically convoluted — struck me as entirely original. I’m not referring to the striver’s originality, that of the self-invented artist; I mean the originality that is only possible when a writer has managed to grope his way toward his own particularity. Dixon managed that years ago, and keeps on doing it.
“14 Stories” was part of a greatest-hits collection called The Stories of Stephen Dixon, which served, for me, as a primer in the possibilities of the form. Every opening sentence thrilled. I could copy them down here all day long:
“The city planetarium blew up.” (“The Hole.”)
“My father follows me on the street.” (“Time to Go.”)
“A car stopped. Man got out. ‘You there,’ he said. I dropped my package and started running.” (“Stop.”)
“They want to take my leg away.” (“Cut.”)
“I was crossing Broadway in the Eighties when the light turned red and traffic sped past.” (“Dog Days.”)
These weren’t the first lines of a writer trying to make a good impression. They were the lines of a man sitting down and getting to work. They stirred me to action, as all good literature should. I would raid Dixon for the first line of my first novel, and for a lot of lines afterward, too.
Dixon is always clever, but never precious. He will try anything. He’ll write a pornographic story with all the dirty words misspelled (“Milk Is Very Good for You”). He’ll write a story with all the dialogue removed, but the dialogue tags left in (“Said”). He’ll write a monologue containing half a dozen nested quotes (30, his best novel). He’ll write a story about himself losing the National Book Award then fantasizing about winning it (“The Victor”). Never is he doing this to impress you, though you are impressed; he is making the mechanics of the prose answer to the fears and flaws of his characters. He is showing you the comedy of sex, the futility of words, the stratiation of thought, the perils of vanity. Critics have called Dixon difficult, perverted, pretentious. Their hearts are pitifully small. You have to go into a Dixon book the way you’d go into a game of strip poker: ready to end up naked. He gives it to you straight, and means every word. He is the least pretentious living writer.
He is also one of the few writers whose new work I will put everything aside to read, which is to say he is in the company of Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, and Lydia Davis. He is as honest as a judge, industrious as an ant, and funny as a pie in the face. “My story’s burning,” he writes in “The Franklin Stove,” “as I write this.” It’s true: time is running short. Put aside whatever you’re reading, and read him.