A first collection from Lordan (August Heat, 1989) is an uneven gathering of six linked stories (some of them appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in the ’80s) and a blistering title novella that’s one of the finest works of its kind since Tillie Olsen’s classic “Tell Me a Riddle” (which it substantially resembles). The stories explore with carefully restrained empathy the buried intellectual and even visionary dimensions of the stunted lives of rustic midwesterners (most of whom live in the town of Clayborne). Several characters keep reappearing in such tales as “The Cow Story” (about the eccentric behavior of bachelor Byron Doatze’s cow as a tornado approaches—and about Byron’s own uncharacteristic bravado in the company of Clayborne’s feisty spinster librarian) and “The Dummy,” a beautiful tale about a runaway mute boy whose intuitive fixation on a ventriloquist’s doll likewise resembles, and mocks, Byron’s failure to escape his self-imposed emotional shell. There’s more than a whiff of Winesburg, Ohio in highly charged pieces like “The Snake” (a long-suffering housewife’s “heroism” challenges her husband’s lost control over the family’s destiny) and “The Widow” (told by a ghost who remains in her house watching, and marveling at, the ’splendors” exhibited by the taciturn husband she thought she knew). Two other stories, “Running Out” and “Old Clayborne Trail,” are inchoate—but then there’s “And Both Shall Row”: a novella about two elderly sisters, Margaret and May White, who live together in passive contentment, years after the death of the man they both had married in turn. The consequences of a disabling stroke suffered by May (who nevertheless narrates the story, in a triumph of technical dexterity) and of Margaret’s stoical response to her daughter’s “arrangement” of their fates are stunningly delineated in a story that just builds and builds to its heartstopping climax. A bit of a patchwork, but with brilliant work included.