Following his dazzling debut, Ross drops seven more doses of disquieting fears and misleading hopes.
Having established his penchant for head-turning narrative architecture in his much-lauded first novel, Ross (Mr. Peanut, 2010) wrings bleakly funny, if somewhat panicky moments out of this fierce collection of short stories. The opener, “Futures,” drills straight down into the collective discomfort of the American middle class. A man dressed in his best suit tries desperately to hide his anxiety moments before a job interview, fantasizing that his interviewer might just be an attractive woman with a job offer to save his life. His cynicism is tempered, a little, by his affection for his neighbor and her troubled son. But as with most things in America, the wish granted is a far cry from the wish envisioned. In “The Rest of It,” a small-minded professor’s run-in with an aggressive maintenance man turns his thoughts to the human condition. “Because the world seemed too wide, its fortunes too random, and its blessings too fleeting to honor one man’s bravery—or to punish his cowardice,” Ross writes. A remembered tale of college hijinks ends with an awful blow in “The Suicide Room,” while “When In Rome” details the consequences of a long-standing rivalry between two brothers, one a citizen of sorts and the other your basic lowlife. One of Ross’ great strengths is walking that eternally fine line between showing the reader things—a bloody fistfight between brothers, or a Twilight Zone-esque reveal—and the heartbeat monitoring of a character’s internal life. The latter comes into play in the finely honed title story, in which a traveling freelance writer weighs a life-changing moment against the stories she might tell a stranger someday about that very decision. In those moments, these characters are either untethered by their own vividness or weighed down with all the trouble in the world. In either case, it’s impossible to look away.
A fine collection of stories.