Death Defier by Tom Bissell (page 174) goes a bit further into layering stories and presenting the reader with some work to define the theme. The main story in the past tense third person POV is of a journalist (Graves) and a photographer (Donk) who have hooked up in Afganistan and are attempting to travel through dangerous war zones along with a guide (Hassan) who they’re not sure they can fully trust. Graves is ill with malaria, and this along with the danger of the journey provide both the points of stress and conflict as well as the underlayment of death that Donk carries with him as a mental burden since his father’s death.
While the premise may appear as man against society, and this is fully covered in Donk’s wonderings about the comparisons and contrasts in human nature on a global scale, it is also his private man against himself in his reflections of death as he’s experienced it, from the quiet death of his father to the tortured deaths of those he photographs in his travels. Now facing the possible death of his friend, Graves, he does all he can whilst being frustrated by the conditions and lack of assistance. The ending is a satisfying and surprising twist both for those who enjoy the head-scratching "I’ll have to think about this one " as well as those who demand a more traditional ending to an adventure story.
And I must exclaim about the writing:
Graves smiled. "Old men have to die. The world grows moldy, otherwise." (p. 198)
The man’s face, Donk thought, was 70 percent nose. (p. 199)
"Mister Donk," Hassan said, apprehensive to be violating Rule One, "you are well?" "Fine," Donk said. "Some dirt in my eye." Hassan almost smiled. "Both eyes?" Hassan was smarter that Donk realized. Everyone, Donk thought, was smarter than you realized. "Yes, Hassan. Both eyes." (p. 203)
The Girls, by Joy Williams (p. 212) is a delightfully told story that is woven together by an underlying resentment of two sisters who are content to live in an world created to manipulate their parents and everyone else while keeping it safe from interference of boyfriends and houseguests. They are cruel in the way of Dorothy Parker’s characters; self-centered and malicious in a place in time that is also very reminiscent of Parker’s 40s and 50s wealthy residents. Nicely written, the story is well drawn out into the characters, and yet there is again here an ending that is both unexpected and leads one to wonder what major changes the girls will be undergoing from the climactic event, or, if indeed, it is something well planned for. Good entertainment, good study in story elements.