This debut collection of 17 linked stories examines, often comically, the slow demise of a Pennsylvania coal town.
Sandwiched between 1949 and 1994, the stories cover multiple families related by marriage or friendship or disaster, as the inhabitants of Cokesville drag their sorrows from one decade to the next. The center of the collection lies with Annie Kusiak and her best friend, Tess Randall, who are either featured or know the characters in each tale. In “Hocus Pocus,” Theodore Cheslock is “the most miserable man in Cokesville.” And the reason for his gloom? A not-so-simple case of existential ennui, the disillusionment of knowing that every day will be the same as the last. Out for a drink on his 45th birthday, he happily disappears, thanks to the work of a magician. Theodore isn’t seen again for 21 years, when he reappears three stories later in “Congratulations, Goldie Katowitz” as an old man, teenaged Annie’s long-lost grandfather now dottily brought home to roost with his recent lottery winnings. Annie goes to college, drops out, attempts suicide and tries to reconnect with her ex-boyfriend in “Annie Kusiak’s Meaning of Life”; though only 19, poor Annie’s life doesn’t improve much in subsequent stories. Tess becomes a star for a moment in Hollywood, then a soap-opera diva, then something on the fringe, until she finally becomes a producer, when the son she adopted long ago comes calling in “Now You Don’t.” The best in the collection is “Mrs. Szewczak and the Rescue Dog.” Stranded at a bus stop during a blizzard, hoping the emergency Rescue Dog car finds her before she dies of hypothermia, old Mrs. Szewczak takes a ride offered by two pot-smoking black men, and what ensues is both hopeful and a bit tragic.
A pleasurable, if at times too tenuous, examination of hardscrabble lives and hapless dreams.