The impulse to shed our birth families and make our own, and the contrary tug of blood that lures us back to our origins, are the emotionally charged matter of these ten linked stories, set in North Carolina Arkansas, and Texas, by a talented new Arkansas writer. Their common bond is protagonist and narrator Richard, whom we first meet (in "Why I'm Talking") as an eight-year-old who stops speaking when his mother attempts suicide, and is appeased by bonding with the teenaged daughter of his grandfather's black mistress, as well as with his unregenerate father's new girlfriend. The complex folly of his parents' on-again/off-again marriage is disclosed to him a few years later (in "What Men Love For"). Subsequent pieces depict Richard's own troubled relationships with girls and women ("At the Edge of the New World"), fatherhood and marital failures ("Everything Quiet Like Church," "When Love Gets Worn"), and partial reconciliations with the crazy people who gave him life and never can seem to relax their grip on him ("What We Are Up Against" and the resonant, concluding title story). There's some unavoidable repetition, and a couple of particularly shapeless stories (such as "Corporal Love") that amass anecdotes from various stages of Richard's early life. But the collection's strong points are the vivid characterizations of Richard's parents (seen only briefly, but always to telling effect) and firm control of a tone of reflective melancholy that exactly suits Phillips's empathetic portrayal of a thoughtful man trying to understand where he comes from and what he's made of. "We were a hard people," Richard muses, "who counted time by tragedies and who took a storyteller's pleasure in reshaping our sadness." Just so; and that's why we take a reader's pleasure in sharing it.
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