Auditioning for life, a story at a time

Too often, short story collections leave you feeling a little unfulfilled. The bits don't add up to a coherent and interesting whole.

But short doesn't have to mean shortchanged. Debra Dean's new collection is proof that the form can capture gripping, neurotic or darkly funny slices of life in a way that illuminates the modern experience on a broader level.

In "Confessions of a Falling Woman and Other Stories," the follow-up to Dean's well-regarded novel "The Madonnas of Leningrad," the stories come at you hard, a series of zingers delivered with just enough humor, intelligence and restraint to keep them from becoming painful. Individually, they are polished, smart, interesting tales of life in the big city. Taken as a whole, they create the feel of a beehive, a million little stories dissolving into the larger picture.

Dean worked as an actor in the New York theater world for almost a decade before becoming a writer and teacher at the University of Miami, and she heavily mines her experiences from those early years. Her characters are actors, the ones who get paid and ones who are acting out or acting happy or acting brave.

In "Another Little Piece of My Heart," a divorced couple is thrown back together by a stolen car. The story ends with the former wife, in an unguarded private moment, trying on the clothes of the woman who replaced her and watching herself in the mirror as she belts out her version of a Janis Joplin song. "Just bake it! Bake another little pizza tart now, baby," she sings.

In "The Bodhisattava," a woman in a park runs into her former psychotherapist, a doctor who stopped seeing her as a patient when she developed a crush. The story is told in the first person, almost like a monologue, with a sense that the main character is viewing her life as someone who knows she's being watched.

That feeling -- of life playing out on stage, of an audience sitting out there in the dark, listening to a play or viewing a production of some sort -- pervades Dean's stories. It's a comment on modern life, which young people experience at a distance. Nothing is worth doing unless you can blog it, videotape it or use it as performance art to recount and comment on later.

For Dean, who clearly has given great thought to what it means to be an actor, the collection works as a multifaceted examination of the nature of experience for viewed and viewer. With the stories standing firmly on that ground, the collection comes across as smart but not didactic, gritty and real but not pulpy or overly dramatic.

For Dean, who views the world in scenes, the pitch of the book is ultimately hopeful and a little wistful: Sometimes the only reality is the one you act with the most conviction.