A serial killer, car wrecks, suicide, alcoholism—everyday life in a prairie town gets dark in this debut set of linked stories.
The 11 stories in this short but emotionally dense collection all take place in a Chicago exurb that’s hit the skids. A trailer park decimated by fire has been converted into a paintball park with a post-apocalyptic theme, but the casino is doing brisk business, as is the prison. That’s where Hartley, a successful commodities trader, resides after having been convicted of vehicular manslaughter, an incident that’s had a broad impact. His wife, Glennis, has descended deeper into an alcoholism that’s already been stoked by a rough past, including the murder of her hard-drinking mother by the “Soyfield Strangler.” Victor, whose wife, Sonia, Hartley killed, sublimates his grief by spraying pesticides on the cemetery he runs, which eradicates the dreaded oak beetles but kills plenty of birds as well. (“Conventional grief management it ain’t, but it just feels good to waste those little fuckers.”) His sister-in-law, Allie, is trying to help Victor while navigating a flailing marriage. The stories don’t follow a linear path—the book begins the day before Hartley’s release but jumps around in time from, say, Glennis as a teenager to an intervention Hartley attempted shortly before the accident. That indirect approach can make it difficult to discern where we are in time and relationships, but disorientation is one of Harper’s goals—he wants to establish the town as a place rife with unlikely deaths and near-death experiences, dark secrets, and broken relationships. Harper occasionally has his characters voice some only-in-a-novel profundities to get that point over, but he’s also accessed a plainspoken but effectively moody prose style that gets into the details of each character’s life while suggesting a larger storm cloud that makes his setting Bad News, U.S.A.
A somber but consistently intriguing clutch of heartland tales.