Tales of family and aging comprise this affecting new collection from short-story writer Baker (Loving Wanda Beaver, 1995, etc.).
These nine stories all focus on death, dying or illness. Two of the most powerful pieces show different ends of life’s timeline: In “Popeye’s Theorem,” a woman helps care for her brother, who struggles with short-term memory loss after being wounded in Iraq, while in “Happy Hour,” a middle-aged man acts out an increasingly painful tradition with his mother: visiting his ailing father at “the Home” for evening drinks. Part of what makes these two stories so striking is their focus: Using a first-person point of view, Baker convincingly enters each protagonist’s head, and even as their minds drift, each story remains propulsive, moving forward. This isn’t the case in many of the other pieces, however, where Baker’s approach becomes jazzy and desultory, flying between different points of view, stretching out narratives over days, weeks, months. These stories veer from the mundane to the strange: dead bodies are found, one young man imagines the ghost of John Lennon giving him advice, another man believes he’s Jesus Christ. Sometimes Baker piles on too many elements; “North of Mount Shasta,” for example, doesn’t satisfactorily deal with all of its plot strands, which include the remains of an unidentified soldier, a runaway girl, deforestation and mysterious graffiti. But the stories’ occasional unruliness suggests the messy perplexities of life. Baker, whose stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and The Gettysburg Review, populates her stories with many struggling artists—such as a talented poet who “never seemed to get anywhere.” If literary struggles lead to work like this, it’s worth it.
A moving, ambitious story collection.