Appropriately homely imagery and dead-solid perfect dialogue help some, but don’t do nearly enough to animate the morose folks who wander through the 11 uneven stories in this third collection from the Kentucky author (Midnight Magic (1998); Clear Springs (1999).
Most of those characters are women returning to their old abandoned Kentucky homes in the wake of compulsive meandering, busted marriages, or affairs that have gone nowhere. For example, the earthy protagonist of “With Jazz,” twice-divorced, mourning the daughter who died in childhood, ceaselessly bar-hopping. Or Wendy, of “Night Flight,” seen “returning to the place she had once been so eager to escape,” hoping good-ol’-boy Bob may after all love her as much as he loves a good time; or divorced Sandra McCain (of “The Funeral Side”), back from Alaska to stay with her widowed father, a mortician whose dutiful relationship with death is in fact the source of his resilience and strength. Too many of these pieces recycle essentially similar premises and details, remain undeveloped, and trail off into inconclusive endings. Mason’s prose has a certain colloquial snap and lilt, and she’s capable of both quietly arresting metaphors (“Snow made hats on garbage cans”) and deadpan hilarious renderings of colloquial speech (“He had one eyebrow that went all the way across. Them’s the guys to watch out for”) that occasionally recall Flannery O’Connor at her devastating best. But on balance this is a disappointing volume, redeemed only by moments in “A Funeral Side,” and two unqualified successes. “Tobrah” recounts 40ish, (again!) twice-divorced Jackie’s slow, troubled bonding with her five-year-old half-sister, the child of her father’s old age, bequeathed to her perhaps as a mocking revelation of the comforts of motherhood to which Jackie has come too late. And “Charger,” about a 19-year-old working in a fertilizer plant and fighting off both depression and the temptation to settle down with his agreeably trashy girlfriend, is a laconic, bittersweet beauty.
But Mason hasn’t been often at her best since early in her career. Sadly, Zigzagging does little to reverse the downward trend.