There are some spectacular moments, and also several inexplicable miscalculations in this extremely uneven yet unquestionably promising debut collection of nine stories by Yale Law student Haslett.
Most of Haslett’s characters are silent sufferers or unrequited lovers who live out lives of silent desperation unrelieved by full connection with others or disclosure of their innermost secrets. This is particularly true of stories that focus on gay characters, such as an orphaned high school boy powerfully attracted to a surly, violence-prone classmate (“The Beginnings of Grief”); an unmarried brother and sister who have loved and lost the same man (“Devotion”); and a terminal AIDS patient whose carefully planned withdrawal from job and relationships ends in (harrowingly described) surreal dementia (“Reunion”). These are edgy, disturbing explorations of loneliness that don’t quite work—as are “My Father’s Business,” a mock-documentary look at a bipolar patient with a curious philosophical bent; and “The Volunteer,” an initially gripping account of the relationship between a lonely elderly woman and the effectively motherless teenager who bonds with her that falls apart into inexcusable contrivance. And yet Haslett’s riskiest, most far-reaching pieces are his best. “Divination,” about a private school student who has inherited his father’s unwanted prophetic “gift,” grates expertly on the reader’s nerves. Even better are “The Good Doctor,” in which a callow physician’s efforts “to organize his involuntary proximity to human pain” are unsettled by the story of a luckless family’s destruction by economic failure and drug addiction; and “The Storyteller,” a hypnotically strange amalgam of Chekhov and Beckett, about an American in Scotland torn between suicidal guilt over his lingering depression and its erosion of his marriage, and his compulsive intimacy with a stoical old woman and a dying boy: it’s one of the finest, and most unusual, stories of recent years.
Not by any means the book it might—perhaps should—have been. But don’t overlook those three terrific stories.