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Thompson's Stories Reflect How Americans Live

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Jean Thompson published her first book of short stories in 1979. Over the past 30 years, she has tackled subjects from urban life, to failure, to middle age, to that time-worn topic, unrequited love.

Her latest collection of short fiction is called "Do Not Deny Me." Alan Cheuse has this review.

ALAN CHEUSE: I won't deny Jean Thompson what she's due. I'm tempted to say move over, Alice Munro. This gifted writer from Illinois now sits in my mind near the throne of the short story queens and kings of old. She's a master of dialogue, character, pacing and plot. And anyone who loves the American short story will have to cheer about this. She takes as her subject the world of Midwestern men and women, the young and the old, love, loneliness, divorce, and uses as her settings everywhere from houses, to bus stops, to offices, to schools, hospitals and prisons. In other words, her world is mostly made up of people like Lynn, who in "Her Untold Story," frets that her life is already used up, and that she doesn't even have a story anymore.

Well, Jean Thompson herself doesn't have to worry. She seems to have plenty of stories. There's the one about the odd, aging academic named, appropriately enough, Penrose, in "Soldiers of Spiritos," who keeps his sanity by turning colleagues and students into weird characters in a novel he has constantly in the works. There's Matt, the ambiguous antihero of the story of office politics called "Mr. Rat." He's a master of duplicity with himself and others. There's Beata, the German-American woman who meddles dangerously in the tawdry lives in her neighborhood in "Little Brown Bird." And Julia, the young woman in the title story, who, after her boyfriend dies unexpectedly, strikes up a nearly disastrous friendship with a local medium, a woman she meets at a bus stop soon after her lover's death. You have a gift, the older woman tells her. I'd give it back, the troubled Julia responds.

I'm hoping the gifted Jean Thompson hangs on to hers.

SIEGEL: Jean Thompson's new book of short stories is called "Do Not Deny Me." Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. And Alan has a new book of his own short stories. It's called "A Trance After Breakfast." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.