Short stories, a university professor once told our class, offer us a glimpse into a life, a moment, often a defining one, when the character of the people in the story is clearly visible. At least that’s how he explained how short stories were different than novels. Often I find that the case with stories that are concerned with character as opposed to dazzling the reader with language for language’s sake. It certainly is true of the 19 stories in Jim Powell’s collection Only Witness.
Whether it’s one snowy night in a Midwestern smalltown bar or on board a train heading toward Vienna, these stories capture that moment when people are exposed in all their faults or strengths. Here a wife confronts her marriage to a sex addict while burying her father, two young men involved with the same woman try to reach an understanding over the welfare of the little boy they have both, in their own way, come to love, an eleven year old boy faces the consequences of a rash act, a son confronts his own responsibilities toward his mother who is slowly descending into dementia. These people, whether one could consider them admirable or misguided, are drawn with a clear eye and an understanding heart by Powell. He understands them and presents them without judgment. They are exposed in that moment for us to understand, too. This author writes with the wisdom gained from what must be a life rich in experience who possesses the mind, the heart, and the skill to portray it with insight and compassion. These are stories I will return to again and again. What better way to understand human natüre than in the hands of a talented writer.