The man across from Henriette read a book. It was a very big book, a Hunger Games or Game of Thrones kind, with a sword and flame and chess piece on the cover. Dean had never read such a big book. The man was on the very last page and Dean felt guilty suddenly for spying on him during this personal moment, but he did not stop. It was not often, he reasoned, that he would get the opportunity to observe another person at the exact moment they finished a book, a big one at that. But, after the last page, the man, without so much as a satisfied nod or pensive stare, shut the thing and immediately put in his iPhone buds. This disappointed Dean.
That's just one of any number of paragraphs throughout these stories that don't advance the plot, reveal or describe much in the way of character -- but man, the little bit of flavor they add to the story makes it worth it. And don't you just want to shake the man who finished the book by the shoulders and ask what is wrong with him? The guy appears for one paragraph, and I have a strong reaction to him. With short stories, you don't typically get to do that kind of thing the way you can with novels, because every word has to count -- and typically, that's what Vincent Chu does, but every now and then, he stretches a bit. Typically, like the best short fiction writers, Chu gets his bang for his buck when it comes to his words -- tight, economical prose that strikes just the right tone each time.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Like a Champion is a collection of eighteen short stories featuring all sorts of people -- underdogs in one sense or another -- getting a taste of victory. Some of this victory is very short-lived, some is quite Pyrrhic, but it's there. The stories are varied in tone, in voice, in setting, in types of character -- and that's such a strength. Some will make you smile, some laugh, some are sad, some are tragic, some are somber, all are incredibly human.
There's a lot I could talk about -- if I could, I'd spend a few hundred words on "Squirrels", the fourth story in the collection. I don't know why, but that one sealed me appreciation for this book, and it stands out as a high point for me. There's just something about it that worked for me, the same kind of thing that lead me to write three papers for three separate courses in college about one Updike short story. There were a couple of other stories that I could point to that were as as outstanding, but I'll stick with "Squirrels" -- a story about one man's childhood basketball triumph in the midst of defeat -- because I enjoyed it more.
With one exception (at least one that I noticed, I might have missed others), these are independent of each other. The two stories that are connected are so different in tone and subject matter that it takes you by surprise when you notice the connection -- but it really works (and the connection is of a lesser importance, that not much changes if you don't make the connection). It was a nice little touch, I would've liked a part three, however.
I'm not crazy about Chu's depiction of older characters. Maybe if I only got one of the stories in this collection featuring an older character -- I wouldn't have commented. Or if I took a few more days to read this than I did, it wouldn't have stood out to me as much, but when you get the same note or two being played so often with elderly characters it sticks out.
I don't usually spend much time talking about the publisher of the books I post about, but when it comes to some indie presses, I should. A couple of months ago, I know I posted a link to a profile of 7.13 Books in a Saturday Miscellany, and before that I talked about another short story collection they put out. And come to think of it, I have one more book from them on my schedule in the coming weeks. If Like a Champion is indicative of what they are publishing (and it seems to be), there's something in the water there, folks, keep an eye out for their books.
Like with every collection -- be it full of short stories, essays, poems -- there are some in this collection that don't work for me -- two because I didn't get what he was going for; a couple that I'm pretty sure I got what he was going for, and just didn't care for it. And I'm very sure that many people will get those I didn't and will like the ones I didn't care for -- and even dislike the stories that I enjoyed, and maybe even someone's nuts enough to not care for the ones that filled me with joy. There's enough variety in these to appeal to all sorts of tastes -- and that's a compliment, Chu's nothing if not versatile. But on the whole, this is a great collection of short stories, full of compassion, humanity, and talent. You'd do well to grab this one.
Note: I received a copy of this eARC in exchange for my honest opinions as expressed above.