The much-anthologized Poissant justifies his status as a favorite of the literary quarterlies with this debut collection of unsparing yet warmly empathetic stories.
It’s no small feat to elicit understanding for a man who throws his teenage son through a window when he finds out the boy is gay, but Dan Lawson’s first-person narration in “Lizard Man” makes his grief and regret so palpable that we hope his decision to seek reconciliation at the story’s end will be followed through. It’s characteristic of Poissant’s sure hand that Dan reaches this decision via a visit to the house of a friend’s recently deceased father, which culminates with the release of an enormous alligator into a golf club pond: The bizarre circumstances give rise to a moving revelation of forgiveness delayed too long. Mistakes that can never be amended also torment the protagonists of “Me and James Dean,” “Nudists” and “The Disappearing Boy,” though in each case, Poissant holds out hope that the simple human ability to move on can at least partially heal many wounds. That hope is most touchingly, albeit tentatively expressed in “The Geometry of Despair,” a two-part tale of a couple painfully at odds after their infant daughter’s crib death. But it would be misleading to suggest that Poissant’s work is consistently affirmative; “The Amputee,” “The End of Aaron” and “How to Help Your Husband Die” are overwhelmingly sad, the more so because their characters are drawn with such tenderness. Two short, overstylized pieces, “Knockout” and “The Baby Glows,” are the author’s only missteps, but perhaps they were warm-ups for the delicate balance between allegory and realism achieved in “What the Wolf Wants.” The collection closes with the title story, which follows Dan on a frantic cross-country drive to see his son, dying of AIDS in California. Once again, Poissant declines to reassure but finds beauty in our imperfect strivings toward love and connection.
Rueful and kind, akin to both Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver in humane spirit and technical mastery.