Debut collection limns a variety of troubled characters searching for solace of both sexual and spiritual varieties in the contemporary South.
The title story investigates the frustrations of Jake, who learns after they marry that his young wife, Sheila, was manipulated into “heavy petting” by an uncle when she was 12 and then, when they were caught, blamed for it by her conservative Christian parents, who afterward considered their daughter damaged goods. Though this trauma seems to have permanently turned her off sex, Jake still fears that Sheila is cheating on him, while he is tempted by a wealthy cancer survivor who's a major donor to the hospital where he works. This is the first of several lurid scenarios that could have devolved into standard-issue Southern Gothic but instead convey compassion for Lawson’s damaged protagonists in straightforward but sharply perceptive prose. Teenagers roiled by sexual desire drive the action in “The Way You Must Play Always” and “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling,” and they are surrounded by adults equally confused and unhappy. Indeed, it might have made more thematic sense for the collection to take its name from “Vulnerability,” the closing and longest piece; that title pinpoints an essential human quality on abundant display here. In that story, Lawson takes the first-person narrator, a painter, to New York to meet a famous artist and an art dealer who for all their sophistication are as needy as the husband she left back in her Southern hometown drinking scotch and watching porn in a backyard shed. Faltering marriages, uneasy connections to fundamentalist religious backgrounds, and the gray areas where powerful teenage sexuality meets adult desire in relationships that may or may not constitute abuse—these are among the recurrent subjects handled frankly yet with a delicate touch.
Meaty, satisfying tales of a substance that suggests Lawson would make a fine novelist.