Ten debut stories by novelist Barkley (Alison’s Automotive Repair Manual, 2003, etc.), most portraying unhappy men and women working out their lives in the backwoods South.
Though a good deal grimmer than Barkley’s previous work, the tales feature the same resilient dreamers: half-desperate, half-visionary oddballs who persevere against the odds like characters in an existentialist novel. The title story, in a T.C. Boyle vein, portrays an unhappy ménage à trois made up of two high-school chums, a sculptor and a construction worker, who cohabit with the latter’s girlfriend, a business-school student ten years younger but a lifetime more mature than either of them. Many of the pieces have a mournful quality. “The Properties of Stainless Steel” depicts a distraught couple, grieving over the death of their baby daughter, attempting to reestablish some semblance of a normal married life by taking square dance lessons. “The Small Machine” shows a middle-aged husband’s quiet despair at the futility of his plans for the perfect anniversary present—and, by extension, at marriage and life alike. In the Carver-esque “19 Amenities,” an ill-matched couple spends a dreary New Year’s Eve in a motel in the middle of nowhere while on a ludicrous dog-racing expedition that serves to emphasize their mutual isolation. The standout here is “Mistletoe,” a forceful and unsentimental vignette of an elderly woman dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. In her last days, she becomes a New Age devotee and asks her bewildered son to take some poisonous mistletoe berries from a neighbor’s garden to help her commit suicide.
As pungent and acrid as burning rubber, managing against the odds to pull us into an unpleasant world of speechless despair.