Local writer Christine Sneed had an epiphany while writing an essay for the anthology "Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting Till Next Year." She realized that just like a Cubs fan, she’s had to rely on near-fanatical optimism to keep writing year after year without a book contract. But then her luck seemed to change.
Salman Rushdie chose her short story "Quality of Life" for the collection "The Best American Short Stories 2008." Then Sneed won the Grace Paley Prize in short fiction for her collection "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry."
WBEZ's literature contributor Donna Seaman has a review of her stories:
“Mr. Fulger called when he wanted to see her and she obliged.” Such restraint, such formality, and yet how subtly sexual and ominous this opening salvo is. Mr. Fulger is an elusive, wealthy, worldly older man. He passes his phone number, along with a mammoth tip, to 26-year-old Lyndsey while she was working as an intermission bartender at a concert hall. An enigmatic arrangement ensues. And it proves corrosive for increasingly lost and isolated Lyndsey.
This perfect story establishes the configurations and concerns that shape many of the nine stories that follow: tricky age-gap love affairs, abuses of power, secretiveness, insecurity, and resentment. Christine Sneed’s cut-glass stories brilliantly illuminate the maze of the psyche. They decode the often toxic chemistry that undermines interactions between family members, lovers, friends, even strangers.
The title story, “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” is a devilishly caustic, delectably nuanced, and haunting tale of inheritance, ambition, fame, and envy. April Walsh is a film school graduate with no prospects. Her grandfather, a famous artist and infamous womanizer, gives her three of his sketchbooks and instructs her to tell no one. He then dies the very next day under startling circumstances. Lidia, his sexy, mischievous, and much younger girlfriend, introduces April to Barrett. He’s a problematically handsome and struggling painter. Lidia warns April that Barrett will most likely only be interested in her because of her celebrity artist grandfather. Sure enough, Barrett is insufferable, and April is at once repelled and smitten. But as this sly and riveting story unfolds, we realize that we cannot trust April, that her take on Barrett may be all defense and zero insight. You never know until the very end of Sneed’s compelling stories which characters will make others cry, and why.
It may sound as though Sneed, who is, without question, notably incisive about sexuality, is skeptical of love. But wait until you read “Twelve + Twelve.” That is a story about the pins-and-needles tenderness between a 30-year-old nurse and a 54-year-old friend of her father’s who has just lost his daughter. Or the gorgeously sensitive, finely detailed, and poignantly funny “By the Way.” In that story, Sasha, a 55-year-old dance instructor and copyeditor (now there’s a curious mix) is terrified that she’s succumbing to early Alzheimer’s. She simply cannot believe either the cruel molestations of age or the sweet courtliness of her much younger lover Miles.
Disbelief is a reigning emotion in Sneed’s short stories, just as misdirection is one of her many skills. Both work to indelible effect in “Alex Rice, Inc.” An American literature professor at an urban university is shocked and dismayed when she sees the name of a very famous, very handsome 32-year-old movie actor on her class roster. This situation Sneed sure-handedly steers in unexpected directions as she considers the magnetic draw and burden of celebrity.
The stories in “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” are exceptionally smart and stealthy, beautifully crafted, stingingly witty, and rich in disclosures about doubt and fear. They are also about the many ways we do ourselves harm, and how splendidly we can surprise each other when we trust compassion and love.
Music Button: Andreas Kapsalis Trio, "Doppelganger", from the CD Original Scores, (Hinos Publishing)