British poet O'Riordan (A Herring Famine, 2017, etc.) makes his fiction debut with a collection of stories set in the U.S.
Whether he’s writing about travelers arriving there after a long journey or the complex lives of longtime residents, O'Riordan's stories largely center on Los Angeles. By and large, these are subtle fictions, works in which mannerisms and casual gestures count for a lot. The first tale, “A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica,” sets the tone for the rest of the book: it’s about the connections made by lovers and the connections made by strangers, and absent figures and physical spaces play a significant part in how the story unfolds. There are a few horrific moments in the book: a hate crime referred to in passing in “Rambla Pacifico” and a sense of wrongness woven through with memory that leads “’98 Mercury Sable” to a haunting climax. A number of the stories involve characters struggling with the passage of time. The artist at the center of the title story notes that “the years in California had temporarily abated the agonies of ageing,” while the protagonist of “Wave-Riding Giants” recalls a weekly meal at the senior housing in which he lives: “uniform slices of ice-cream-pink meat marbled with white fat laid out on trestle tables.” The collection’s high point is “The El Segundo Blue Butterfly,” which traces the overlapping lives and shifting fortunes of a journalist and the businessman he interviews repeatedly over the course of his career. It’s a work that feels fully lived-in.
O’Riordan’s attention to precise details helps make these stories memorable; at their best, they put familiar scenarios in a new light.