7 Short Story Collections Set in American Cities
Andrew Porter, author of “The Disappeared,” recommends stories that bring their urban backdrop to life
At a certain point while I was writing the stories in my short story collection, The Disappeared, I began to notice that all of the stories I was writing were set in either San Antonio, where I currently live, or in Austin, which is the next closest major city to me, about an hour and a half away. I didn’t set out to write a collection of geographically linked stories, but the more stories I found myself writing, the more I began to embrace this idea of using a common backdrop or setting—an urban world in this particular part of Texas—as a core element in the collection with many of the conflicts my characters were facing specific to these two cities.
I’ve been living in San Antonio for close to nineteen years now and I’ve felt that the world of my imagination has become increasingly urban. Not in the New York City sense, but in the sense of a more quietly paced city, a city that despite its population size still has a low-key, manageable feel to it.
In any event, around the same time I was working on these stories, I also started thinking about other short story collections that were set in major American cities and linked by that common backdrop, if not by other elements. I’m sure there are many collections that I’m overlooking here (as well as many cities), but these are a few that immediately came to mind:
Chicago: The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek
In the case of The Coast of Chicago, the short vignettes that fall in between the longer stories give little glimpses into corners of the city, specifically neighborhood life, often through the lenses of older narrators looking back on childhood. These pieces, which at times almost feel like prose poems, provide little accents that reinforce the setting of Chicago and that also resonate with the longer stories that follow and precede them. Dybek started out as a poet, and in many ways this book feels like his most poetic, not only in its organization and structure, but also in its approach to the short story form, the lyrical descriptions, the variety of story types and styles, the movement between realism and magical realism, the way some of the stories almost seem to create new forms of their own, and of course all of them paying tribute to Dybek’s beloved Chicago, reinventing the city at the same time they’re celebrating it.
Los Angeles: Babe in Paradise by Marisa Silver
There are a number of great collections set in L.A. I was tempted, for example, to choose Kate Braverman’s Squandering the Blue or Emma Cline’s Daddy, which is set primarily in different L.A. enclaves, but Marisa Silver’s Babe in Paradise, published in 2002, was the first one that came to mind. There’s just something so distinct and visceral about Silver’s descriptions of L.A., something incredibly atmospheric and haunting. All of the stories in this affecting debut focus on characters grappling with the broken promise of L.A., with various disappointments and disillusionments, dashed hopes and unrealized potentials: a young midwestern couple struggling to break into the film industry, a daughter who does voice over work in the movies trying to reconnect with her father, another young couple trying to move forward in their lives in the aftermath of a carjacking. The LA of these stories is hardly the paradise the title suggests, and yet even in these stories’ darkest moments there are glimpses of profound hope and beauty, of genuine compassion and love, the characters never abandoning each other completely, even in the face of great adversity, never giving up entirely on the fleeting and elusive promise of the city.
Houston: Lot by Bryan Washington
When I lived in Houston, Texas, years ago, my friends and I often lamented the fact that nobody had ever written a collection of short stories set in Houston. A number of Rick Bass’s stories from The Watch were set in Houston, but there wasn’t a whole collection of them. Bryan Washington changed all of that, of course, with the publication of his brilliant collection Lot, a series of extraordinarily moving stories all set in various neighborhoods of Houston. The characters in these interconnected tales are often marginalized and struggling, many of them contending with the ever-changing landscape of the city, with advancing gentrification and with the after effects of the hurricane that uprooted and displaced so many. This is truly a stunning collection, a book that feels as much a celebration of the city as it is a critique of it. And, as a side note, I love that each story in this book is named after a different Houston street or neighborhood (Navigation, Shepherd, Bayside, Waugh). For readers familiar with the city, it’s a really nice touch.
San Francisco: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
It’s hard not to think of Amy Tan, and specifically this book, when you think about literary depictions of San Francisco. In many ways, The Joy Luck Club is a kind of love song to the city, and, specifically, to the Chinatown neighborhood within the city, a neighborhood that Tan portrays in this book as a sort of city within a city, with its own pressures, and traditions, and rites of passage, its own rhythms and delights. Narrated by four Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-raised daughters, these sixteen interwoven stories play off each other in interesting and often surprising ways, especially as the book progresses and our connections to the characters deepen. A truly timeless collection—or, perhaps “novel in stories” is more accurate—one that’s just as resonant today as when it was first published.
Denver: Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
A National Book Award finalist, Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s beautiful and heartbreaking debut collection focuses on Latinx women of Indigenous descent living in and around a rapidly changing Denver. The women in these starkly realistic, yet hopeful stories struggle to move forward in their lives as they contend with poverty and drug addiction, with unexpected violence and generations of social injustice.
Washington, D.C.: Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones
Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City is one of the great short story collections published in the past forty years. His novel The Known World won him the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, but for many readers, like me, Lost in the City, was their first introduction to Jones’s singular fictional vision and extraordinary storytelling gifts. Set against our nation’s capital, these unforgettable stories are about complex, often quiet lives—a teenage girl who cares for pigeons on the roof of her apartment building, a man who works in a neighborhood grocery, a woman who leads a hymn-singing group—but the way that Jones evokes the feel of the city in them—the ordinary rhythms and struggles of everyday life—is just masterful. As Jones himself remarked in the Washington Post, “I had read James Joyce’s Dubliners, and I was quite taken with what he had done and I set out to give a better picture of what the city is like—the other city.”
New York City: Kissing in Manhattan by David Schickler
In some ways, it’s bold to put the word “Manhattan” in your book’s title, just as it feels bold to write a series of linked stories all set in a city that has been written about by so many literary luminaries of the past; but one of the ways that David Schickler makes this task manageable is by linking all of the stories in this hilarious debut to a fictional apartment building called The Preemption, a kind of surreal world inside the often surreal world of Manhattan itself. Some of the eccentric residents of this Gothic apartment building include a perfume heiress, a heartless lawyer, a strangely ageless doorman, and a woman who bathes her husband nightly. This double linking element, though—the fact that all of the stories are set in both Manhattan and The Preemption, or at least connected to these two settings in some way—gives the book a very intimate and unique feel, one as memorable and strange as the charming characters that occupy these tales.