Like much of Delbanco's full-length fiction (Stillness, Sherbrookes, etc.), these nine stories are intelligent, readable, well-meaning—yet lacking in depth, drama, or texture. In almost all the pieces, the focus is on a man nearing 40, usually married, usually the father of a beloved daughter; the man recalls an old flame, or considers the similarities between his dead mother and his young daughter, or muses on time and transience. (In "Traction," the man hurries home from a business trip to be with his daughter after her hip operation: "His baby lay in a hospital bed; he would tell her on arrival, though she would not comprehend him, how the world is in an orbit and ail-things are therefore circular.") Unfortunately, however, though Delbanco gives each of these men different names, ethnic backgrounds, and occupations (lawyer, doctor, insurance broker, academic), they are blandly interchangeable—and uniformly fuzzy; even a tale involving the discovery of infidelity fails to invest this persona with vividness or specificity. (Flattest of all is the essay-like title story—a meditation, dedicated to the late John Gardner's memory, on the unexpected deaths of friends: "Death visited him nightly. It comes when it will come. It could be a furnace malfunction, allergic reaction, rabid bat, oncoming drunk in a van in his lane, suicide, undiagnosed leukemia, handgun in a shopping mall, pilot error, stroke, the purposive assault of some unrecognized opponent, earth, air, water, flame.") And the few sparks of narrative urgency here come from some of the more interesting personalities who cross this central persona's path: in "The Executor," the hero (a frustrated artist) reluctantly inherits the papers of a late, semi-distinguished painter; in the similar "Northiam Hall," a would-be biographer goes to England to start research on the poet Harold Emmett but abandons the project ("Emmett's teaching had been suicide; he was better left alone. We each must learn to die; exampling helps only a little"); and in the faintly amusing "Ostinato," a tired notion—a husband's infidelity with the au pair girl—is given a bit of a bounce via the girl's oddly worded letters (she's Japanese) to both husband and wife. Mildly involving, never-disturbing short fiction, then: sentimental, wistfully thoughtful, undistinguished.
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