Elegant, assured short stories by Roorbach (Summers with Juliet, 2016, etc.), winner of an O. Henry Prize for a story gathered in an earlier collection.
The germs of whole novels, or at least novellas, can easily be found in several of Roorbach’s stories. One, “Harbinger Hall,” works from a beguiling premise: a young scamp forges a pass to get out of school, permanently, and falls under the aegis of the meaningfully named Mr. D’Arcy, who abets his anarchy while steering him toward a real education, “lessons on the maps; lessons on a polished-brass microscope; lessons in a dozen languages; lessons in business, ethics, economics; lessons in math and mythology; lessons in what the old man called charm.” Through those lessons, Bobby becomes Robert, a man of parts. Or so we imagine, since Bobby is still Bobby at the end of the story, still a kid in jeans and sneakers sometime in the 1960s. Roorbach’s characters are often intellectuals or at least smart people; one memorable one is a young woman who, the narrator of “Dung Beetle” tells us, was “formidable in her own way, too, don’t get me wrong; it’s just that for her there were other subjects besides Marxism.” Thus the sentimental education of a “callow boy” begins. Roorbach writes in unadorned, vigorous language, occasionally allowing a word such as “chondrichthyan” to slip in, though never without reason; “shark” wouldn’t have quite done it, given the elevated machinations that are taking place in “Broadax, Inc.,” which moves into the grown-up world, decidedly inferior to the imaginative world of childhood. But even childhood has its fraught moments; says one teenager of a difficult home life, “My phone-in therapist says [my sisters are] damaged from all the moves. Also, my mother has been in a major depression since Judith was born. Also, my father is basically a Nazi.” Poor dad doesn’t get a chance to defend himself, but given that “Kiva” takes place in Wernher von Braun territory, it just could be….
Readable entertainments that have much to say about the world.