Brock follows his debut novel (The Ordinary White Boy, p. 960) with a prizewinning first collection of 14 stories: a flat if engaging thrum along the themes of loss and despair, in working-class upstate New York, in which mostly male characters find themselves confused in midlife.
While not masterful in his execution, Brock is inventive in his devices: in “Starving,” “a group of fathers in Little Falls decided . . . to starve themselves to death.” Despairing over their sons’ failures in marriage and work, the dads wage a group hunger strike—and thus enact a parable of father/son relational dynamics writ large. In “Specify the Learners,” an adult male finds himself in 6th grade again. Having failed the grade as a boy, and believing that failure to be the source of all his future shame, he seeks to mend the youthful gap—but finds his teacher, as well as a young girl, sexually attracted to him. Such extreme situations are a staple of Brock’s fiction here: a man’s hand is severed (in “Compensation”), and its recovery raises deep questions about loyalty and duty to a friend In “Plowing the Secondaries,” another man falls in love, plans a future with, and finally has his heart broken by a corpse of a woman tossed into a snowbank. And in “She Loved to Cook But Not Like This,” a man introduces himself as the arsonist behind the burning of the Emily Dickenson house in Amherst.. The most conventional story here, “The World, Dirty Like a Heart,” details the breakdown of a high-school teacher’s marriage after a colleague falls in love with a 17-year-old student. The author’s rare attempt to narrate in a woman’s voice, “A Cabin on a Lake,” is unconvincing, and lacks the gritty, mauled prose of the other pieces here.
An uneven debut offering an imagination a touch too fond of novelty, a bit too carried away with its own fictive swagger, and a bit too droll in its emotional reticence to capture a reader’s enduring interest.