The James quote about the writer's task appears in a story by Jay McInerney in How It Ended, New and Collected Stories, published in 2009. I came upon the collection Sunday at a local Borders while running from a brewing storm that never delivered. Thankfully, the stories did.
The 26 stories in How It Ended were written over the period of as many years, and take place mostly in New York City. McInerney's characters revel in postmodern angst, and are of all classes and habits. Among them -- the girl with a shaved head and tattooed scalp of "It's Six A.M., Do You Know Where You Are?"; the coke head and prostitute in "The Queen and I"; the cheating husband and pill-popping wife of "I Love You, Honey," a story about lies, faith and deception set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. These characters dream of leading different lives, of being someone other than who they are, of waking up somewhere other than where they really live, and dabble in their illusions. Sometimes their fantasies come true, as in "The Queen and I." But it's longing for them that seems to matter more. More often than not, dreams are mere remainders of a past that cannot be recaptured.
In the early 80s, after getting fired from his job as "fact-checker" at The New Yorker, McInerney was lucky enough to study under Raymond Carver, a master of the short story form, and Tobias Wolff at Syracuse University. Although McInerney has said he finds the short story form daunting, the stories in How It Ended explore important issues with grace and depth and prove he is at home in the genre.