April 20, 2006


Odds Are Good. By Bruce Coville. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.95.

     This is a paperback compilation of Bruce Coville’s short-story collections Oddly Enough (1994) and Odder Than Ever (1999).  It gives readers ages 12 and up a great chance to reacquaint themselves with Coville as a short-story writer – and, if they do not yet know him that way, a great chance to discover just how good he can be in short form.

     Coville is deceptively deep.  His stories frequently seem like witty but surface-level reconsiderations of long-familiar fantasy themes: travel to other worlds, vampirism, elves and brownies and ghosts and werewolves.  But on a second reading – or a careful first one – it turns out that Coville is modifying, even twisting these themes into new shapes, in the service of an overview of life that is humane and captivating.

     Coville tends to be rather coy about the nature of that overview.  In his notes to the original edition of Oddly Enough – the author’s notes to both books are unfortunately omitted from this reprint – Coville makes a passing reference to “my favorite theme of reconciliation.”  Catch those passing references if you can: therein wisdom lies.  For while Coville has written at some length about how different his stories are – some written quickly, some over a period of years, some with intense focus, some after flitting from thought to thought – the reconciliation theme appears again and again, knitting his tales together into a more cohesive whole than he himself seems fully to realize.

     Thus, “The Box,” which Coville wrote in his 20s and described as his personal favorite story at the time Oddly Enough was published, is a strange fantasy about a little boy who believes an angel gave him a box that he must carry everywhere forever – and his reconciliation not only to that burden (if it is a burden) but also to the fact that he will never know what the box contains.  “The Passing of the Pack” is a highly unusual werewolf story at whose heart lies the reconciliation of a child with his long-absent father – a theme developed in equally heartfelt fashion in “The Golden Sail.”  “The Language of Blood” is a very strange vampire tale indeed, about the importance of vampirism as a gateway to prophecy for a vaguely Mesoamerican civilization – and the reconciliation of a boy to his fate as a prophet.

     These are Coville’s more serious tales, but there are lighter ones as well, and in them Coville often seems simply to delight in spinning a yarn.  “Clean as a Whistle,” about a family brownie (not the edible kind – the fairy-tale kind) who is assigned to a particularly messy child, is delightful, and the theme of reconciliation with one’s basic nature is well in the background.  And “Biscuits of Glory” is as lighthearted a ghost story as you’ll likely read anywhere.

     Some Coville tales can pull you into deeply emotional states even before you realize it: “The Giant’s Tooth,” for instance, which will make you question what home really means to you; and “A Blaze of Glory,” an exceptionally touching tale of the approach of real-world death in the context of fairy tale (actually elf tale).  Coville has a habit of making readers think, even when he is playing.  It’s quite an accomplishment.  Odds Are Good is quite a book.

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