Owens’ debut short story collection features wistful characters as they deal with loneliness and disillusionment.
These tales take place in small Texas towns, California metropoles, Haitian villages, and even heaven itself. In Texas, an only child privately endures the trauma of spiteful, divorcing parents against desolate country backdrops in “A Circle of Stones.” In Haiti, a diplomat’s widow settles into the roomy shell of her former married life in “The Christmas Cathedral,” spending Christmas alone in her late husband’s Pétion-Ville home. In “Le Bon Chapeau,” an enthusiastic parish-school student boards a crowded camion and has a discomfiting encounter with voodoo that shakes his Christian faith. During a California earthquake, an obscure writer’s unrequited love inspires him to make a bold, eccentric gesture in “In Print.” A famous Russian revolutionary joins a rock band in the afterlife and quietly struggles with heaven’s absence of exigencies in “His Red Heaven.” Other stories offer tongue-in-cheek commentary on the writing life. In “My Fame,” a newly recognized author adjusts to the absurdity of sudden notoriety. An undiscovered writer in “The Plagiarist” pens a story so marvelous he literally doesn’t believe that he actually wrote it. In other pieces that are more like prose poems than short stories, Owens honors lost lovers and caregivers, rendering them in dream scenes saturated with longing. As this summary hints, the collection demonstrates remarkable stylistic and environmental range, but never at the expense of craftsmanship. Owens’ characters are dynamic and captivating, and he has a masterful knack for subtle plot work. The atmospherics and emotional gravity of the prose are striking, for the most part, although there are some elements that read as self-indulgent and superficial. The pieces on writing, in particular, come across as opportunities to name-drop and showcase hipness to literary culture. Also, several women in these tales seem like mere tropes—the simple, listening woman; the infantilized housekeeper; and the people-pleaser in awe of a male writer’s “fuck-all attitude.”
An ambitious collection that, in spite of its shortcomings, shows impressive scope and literary ingenuity.