Tales from the Finger Lake countryside: gentle and folksy, but without much humor or insight. In 1970, freelance writer Coffman and his wife, like so many others, went back to the land—in their case to a small farm in central New York. Cobbled together here are 50 quick sketches of that life: slaughtering a pig, awkward visits from disbelieving parents, the rearing of various farm creatures (domestic and otherwise), raising the kids. There are moments of great beauty (a fallout of monarch butterflies, the bright flash of a cardinal in the winter gray) and lots of sorrow (the deaths of parents and animal friends, the loss of their pond to leeches). But try as he might, Coffman doesn't coax all that much from these stories. He's a describer, a recorder, neither artful nor artless, and getting below the surface is not his strong point. His neighbors, who appear in a couple of the stories, are good examples of squandered opportunities, strange primitive folks living an 18th-century existence. But Coffman never manages to find out why they do so, and these curious, potentially fascinating characters—the bread and butter of tales such as his—emerge as little more than forgettable, harmless freaks. Coffman is guarded and doesn't let you know his own eccentricities, so while his story might have interesting flashes, it never has a chance to grow on you. The book's best writing comes when death is in the air: The old dog dies; a cat freezes solid; a father falls to cancer. At these times, Coffman allows his writing to go lean and direct, managing to hit a number of nails squarely on the head. It makes one wonder what might have resulted had he run the rest of the manuscript through the typewriter a few more times. Sweet, but so light it melts into air.
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