The very short stories in Deb Olin Unferth’s 2007 collection Minor Robberies were delightfully strange, and her latest collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance, includes a number of similarly brief and quirky pieces. “The Vice President of Pretzels,” for instance, describes a woman’s obsession with the “slightly thicker” pretzels a company no longer makes. “Fear of Trees” is a five-sentence story about a recently released convict who has been in prison so long that the sight of trees sends him into a panic. In “Defects,” a man begins keeping track of “the things he does that compromise his total quality” so that he can lead a less “compromised” life. One hears more than a trace of Lydia Davis in many of these short-shorts, although Olin Unferth has a gentler, more forgiving opinion of humanity.
The new book, however, also sees Olin Unferth tackling larger, more serious topics. “Voltaire Night” describes a writing teacher’s end-of-semester ritual of taking her students to a bar where they each try to outdo each other with tales of the awful things that have happened to them. The first half of the story is relatively light and ironic, and the younger Olin Unferth might have settled for the merely entertaining, but in this story, and others, she pushes further, into darker, more despairing territory.
Nevertheless, Olin Unferth has an irrepressible comic sensibility and her sense of humor shines throughout Wait Till You See Me Dance. “My Daughter Debbie” is written in the voice of the author’s mother and offers a number of sardonic observations on her daughter’s decision to be a writer, including, “It is such a relief to have her be something.” Even in the life-or-death situation presented in “Stay Where You Are,” which finds two British travelers being held at gunpoint in Central America, Olin Unferth rarely misses an opportunity to make a wry remark. “They’ve mistook us for foreign intruders,” the man in the story says. His wife replies: “I don’t wonder with your shave.”