Steven Millhauser’s 1972 debut novel was a knockout. The book, titled Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, is a sly parody biography of a literary wunderkind who dies at the age of 11. By 1997—the year Millhauser won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer—he had already published three novels, two volumes of short stories and a collection of novellas. The books that followed only cemented Millhauser’s reputation as a master storyteller.
Now 71, Millhauser’s latest book, Voices in the Night (Knopf, $26), offers 16 new stories with very little filler and much to appreciate.
In “Miracle Polish,” a man impulsively buys a single bottle of glass cleaner from a door-to-door salesman. After polishing a mirror with the new product, the narrator quickly becomes enamored with his own reflection. Or rather, with the confidence he sees in the man staring back. The polish has a way of removing the worry, the disappointment, the unrealized potential of the person who gazes into it. In no time at all, our narrator fills his house with mirrors until his girlfriend issues a stern ultimatum. It’s an unforgettable story, a polished meditation on Narcissus but also a cautionary tale about the dangers of removing hope and optimism from our lives.
“A Report on Our Recent Troubles” will draw favorable comparisons to Shirley Jackson. It’s a matter-of-fact monologue about an otherwise perfect community haunted by an outbreak of suicides. Equally macabre is “Arcadia,” which is essentially a brochure—complete with detailed descriptions of available amenities and glowing customer testimonials—for a very specific clientele seeking a break from their current emotional state. In “Coming Soon,” the narrator—who has escaped city life—can’t seem to keep up with the changes in his current town.
Elsewhere, Millhauser tackles tall tales, fairy tales, mermaids and baseball. In “American Tall Tale,” legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan squares off against his lazy brother; in Millhauser’s riff on “Rapunzel,” the prince appears to love the challenge of scaling Rapunzel’s tower bedroom more than Rapunzel herself; in “Mermaid Fever,” a dead mermaid washes ashore and prompts a mermaid fashion frenzy in a small, coastal community; in “Home Run,” Millhauser offers an announcer’s play-by-play of an out-of-this-world homer.
Millhauser is frequently whimsical and often funny, but he tackles serious subjects. There’s a lot of death and finality swirling around Voices in the Night, but don’t let that scare you. Millhauser doesn’t tell readers what to think about these heavy themes; he just writes clever stories that make it impossible not to think about them. ★★★★✩