A set of stories about kids in a seemingly wholesome small town that’s tinged with darkness.
Elliott’s (Runners on Running, 2012, etc.) characters are young boys and a few girls, most of whom are growing up in the town of Milford, Illinois, during the 1950s and ’60s. Their lives are filled with schoolwork, sports, and crushes until subtle crises undermine their complacency. In “The Faulkner Sentence,” for example, a beloved English teacher revels in diagramming sentences until a student challenges her to parse a 1,300-word William Faulkner passage. A boy trudges through a snowstorm toward the hospital where his mother lies dying of cancer in “The Big Snow,” and a high school track star, in “Running God,” gets ground down by his coach’s sadistic training regimen. In “The White Sox Team Card,” a trio of delinquents plots to steal a precious baseball card that a Chicago gangster covets, and in “Lucky,” a boy discovers that his perennial good fortune comes at the expense of his polio-stricken sister—and he tries to compensate by courting disaster. A young girl marvels at the northern lights and dreads her strange, drunken uncle in “Aurora Borealis”; a boy reacts to the Sputnik 1 launch in “Propellants” by building an amateur rocket called Red Scare; and in the title story, an eighth-grader discovers a classmate taking refuge in his family’s fallout shelter during the Cuban missile crisis. In this debut collection of stories, some of which have previously appeared in literary magazines, Elliott crafts characters who are mainly ordinary youngsters in ordinary circumstances who feel slightly uneasy in their skins—overmatched by expectations or possessing unrealistic desires. Often, these tensions are played for gentle comedy, but just as often, the author pulls the rug out from under readers by swerving into disaster. Elliott writes with a supple, naturalistic style that’s also psychologically rich: “George—beautiful, vulnerable George—with lifetimes behind those lovely, hooded eyes and smiling his all-knowing smile,” muses a girl besotted with Beatles heartthrob George Harrison in “Mania.” The result is a vivid evocation of postwar America that’s both halcyon and haunted.
A sometimes-luminous, sometimes-mordant collection that undercuts its nostalgia with complex ironies.
The blurry line between strangers and intimates is drawn, waveringly policed, and transgressed in these short stories.
Walker (At Danceteria and Other Stories, 2016) confronts his mostly female protagonists with new and disturbing relationships that lead to upsetting renegotiations of their lives. A wife discovers that her vain, unmarried mother gave up another daughter for adoption, and that sister reappears to reclaim a family life that never happened; a socially phobic woman weathers agonizing parties and then has to choose between a gorgeous new boyfriend and her trusty Toyota; a mother finds that she has more in common with her bitchy teen daughter than she would like, including their taste in men; and a Japanese salaryman in Singapore has his life destroyed when his lover’s roommate catches him using the ladies’ room. In addition, dowdy secretaries at a PR firm bristle at their hot new office mate and plot to hoist her by her own sex appeal; a woman restarts her life repeatedly in different corners of the world but is dogged by violent relationships with men; and a blocked writing professor rustles up material by stealing the ideas of her best student and starting an affair with a colleague whose wife is dying of cancer. Several tales feature gay men immersed in rough trade: A high school locker-room rape gets reprised later in a porn star’s edgy scenes; a male prostitute describes the prosaic realities of his job as the tricks turn darker. Walker’s scintillating stories crackle with frank sexuality and deadpan comedy. There’s a satirical edge to many of them, but they are always grounded in prose that’s realistic but extraordinarily vivid and even nightmarish. “When the nurse handed her the wrinkled little thing, its skin so much darker than hers and Takahiko’s, the baby opened its mouth and emitted a horrible shriek like a preening beastling, its eyes stapled shut with lines of mucus,” Walker writes in the eerie “Why Burden a Baby with a Body?” In this story, a young Japanese mother neglects her squalling newborn to obsess over a pretty, twinkling fantasy child in an online role-playing game. The result is a deep dissection of lives where the barriers to human connection can take on sometimes-comic, sometimes-monstrous proportions.
A fine collection of tales, as unnerving as they are entertaining.
These short stories and a novella explore, with Appel’s (Millard Salter’s Last Day, 2017, etc.) trademark dark humor, contemporary life and its ethical dilemmas.
As in his previous, fine collections, the author draws on his experiences as a physician, attorney, and bioethicist to inform these tales. Questions of right and wrong play out in familiar settings, usually suburban, and they seldom offer easy answers. The first story, “The Children’s Lottery,” crosses Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal” with Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” A third-grade teacher, Oriana Hapley, receives notice that in three days, a registered pedophile will visit her classroom and choose one child. Oriana is upset, hoping very much that her favorite student won’t be chosen—but she feels that allowing pedophiles “a few children for their collective use” is safer and fairer for everyone: pedophiles no longer need to kidnap and murder, she thinks, and the lottery children are said to be resilient. Appel presents this horrific scenario with a straight face, making it all the more stinging as a satire of seemingly rational solutions for complex social problems. All the stories here are well-observed, combining poignancy with often darkly shaded humor, but the title piece is particularly fine in exploring Appel’s concerns. In it, Ted Grossbard, a psychiatrist, returns to his childhood home to clean it out after his hoarder mother’s death. He agrees to write an ethical advice column for a local newspaper owned by his longtime (and married) crush, Erica Sucram. A rival columnist, Lester Findlay, who’s also a con man who cheated Grossbard’s mother, steals his ideas; unfortunately, “run-of-the-mill ethical dilemmas” can’t be copyrighted. In disgust, Grossbard advises letter writers to do exactly as they please, making his column extremely popular—as well as easier to write. Later, he decides to burn down the man’s ratty office and frame Erica’s husband. The illicit plan’s careful, if not entirely successful, execution is entertaining, putting readers in an engagingly complicit position: just like the town, they get to enjoy Grossbard’s ethical dereliction. After all, Grossbard concludes, “being right wasn’t everything.”
Another excellent Appel collection of intelligent, humanistic, and witty stories that bite.
A boy growing up alone in a hardscrabble Texas town weathers poverty, violence, and heartbreak in this coming-of-age saga.
Archuleta’s (Rio Sonora, 2010, etc.) tense stories unfold like chapters in a novella about a boy named Josh struggling to make his way in the 1950s and ’60s. In “Jolie Blon,” readers meet little Josh living in a tent with his mother, Belle, and an itinerant farm laborer named Cecil. The boy’s unsettled life is upended when the frustrated Belle steals Cecil’s car, sells it for quick cash, and packs Josh onto a Greyhound. In the gothic “La Tormenta,” readers discover Belle abandoned Josh in a nameless west Texas hamlet. He goes to school, earns his keep—a cot and meals—by doing odd jobs, and observes the town’s darker undercurrents. In “Tormenta,” a wife’s infidelities spark macabre bloodshed, and in “Old Dan’s Lament,” the blighted life of a reclusive, bookish ranch hand maimed in the Korean War becomes grotesquely immediate. As Josh enters high school, the tales merge into episodes in a more conventional adolescent yarn. He scores a touchdown in the homecoming game—rendered with gripping play-by-play by Archuleta. And Josh gets the attention of Missy, the flirty daughter of an affluent rancher who tantalizes him by playing Beethoven on the piano and making out with him in a truck, and Roble, a down-to-earth Mexican-American girl who dreams of becoming a doctor. Dirt poor and with few prospects, Josh wonders how he could fit into either girl’s life as he scrounges work, hangs out at the gas station, and fends off hooligans. Josh is a bit blank—good-hearted but unformed and unambitious. Fortunately, Archuleta surrounds him with more colorful and charismatic characters, from a no-nonsense deputy and a flinty rancher to a tart-tongued, motherly diner waitress. Josh’s town is convincingly crafted from punchy, plainspoken dialogue—“Anyone helping me on this, well, no more beer until it’s over,” a lawman admonishes his posse—and windswept landscapes. (“Tumbleweeds bounced and rolled across dry fields until they became tangled and trapped along the fence lines and as the wind blew south toward the town, it gathered more dirt from the fields and pushed it higher until it formed a great dark rolling cloud, gaining speed and dimming daylight.”) The result is an atmospheric Texas bildungsroman reminiscent of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.
A well-wrought panorama of small-town dramas and discontents.
Ayer’s (Dead Drunk, 2014, etc.) short story collection centers on Margaret Wollaston and her prolonged struggle with her alcoholic husband, George.
Each story unfolds like a chapter in Margaret’s life, starting with her pre-marriage relationship to George in “Finding the Body.” She meets a widow whose loss leads Margaret to consider leaving George, a recurring theme due to the man’s rampant alcoholism. She is supportive when cops have trouble believing George’s claim of a burglar’s assault (“Navigator’s Wife”) but later recognizes a problem when he drives home drunk (“Walking in a Ditch”). Margaret is a sincere, empathetic character; a palpable love for George makes her hesitancy to separate or divorce plausible even after tumultuous decades as a couple. She likewise affords him opportunity to change time and time again; in “Broken Axle,” she utters her oft-repeated sentiment: “If you stop drinking I’ll come back.” “Buster,” set at a club both Margaret and George frequent, is the book’s sole deviation. It’s an amusing tale in which the titular character finds his new manager gig less than ideal. But even the collection’s longest story, the title novella, with George as protagonist, keeps the spotlight on Margaret. In it, George escapes his loveless marriage by isolating himself on an island. From his exile, however, he can still see his house and remains shackled by insecurities, like suspecting that Margaret is having an affair with his friend MacDougall. In other engrossing stories, Margaret endures a volatility between her father and brother-in-law and another husband, Ike, who may be no better than George. Ayer’s prose coats her tales in emotion and atmosphere. In “Button Cottage,” for example, Margaret’s aunt’s maid, Kate, recalls an early romantic experience: “Blackberry canes arched across the low doorway, sunlight slanted through the dusty window, and the old shed smelled of fertilizer.” The book is furthermore a companion piece to the author’s preceding novel, a murder mystery featuring Margaret and George.