This unusual, sometimes-unsettling debut story collection provides the reader with an unvarnished look into the inner lives of a mix of curious characters.
Barrodale, an editor at Vice whose work has appeared in Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review, which awarded her its 2012 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, gives voice to characters who may be a bit creepy or crazy and who could maybe use more self-control, a clearer sense of purpose, or a better way to connect. The uneasy souls who inhabit Barrodale’s stories could stand to drink less, screw around less indiscriminately, and take fewer hallucinogenic drugs, but her portrayal of them is honest and unflinching, and she writes with an almost stark simplicity, unapologetically laying out their missteps and half steps toward and away from one another and themselves. In “William Wei,” the story for which Barrodale won the Plimpton Prize, a man spends his weeknights in his barren apartment, eating the same meal and watching the same movie, until a woman draws him out and takes him on a “bad trip” that changes his life. The male therapist at the center of “Frank Advice for Fat Women,” in the midst of a divorce, slides into inappropriate relationships with an attractive client and her even more attractive mother. The possibly autobiographical narrator of “Catholic,” meanwhile, fools around and falls in love with a married drummer, whom she drunk-emails as he tours the world and grows famous. When, sometime later, she sees him in concert, he catches her eye before the band plays "a song with the refrain ‘my is wrong.' " That could be a refrain here as well: the people in these stories are a little off—is it the drugs? The alcohol? Or are those just symptoms?—yet they are searching for something: a connection to one another, a grip on themselves. Like many of her characters, Barrodale’s stories can be undisciplined, at times veering off in confusing directions. But even so, they remain compelling. You never know where they will take you or whether, at the end of the trip, your life won’t feel at least a little changed.
An unrepentantly offbeat collection by an admirably free-spirited writer.