The characters in Perlstein’s (The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht, 2017, etc.) short story collection endure tragedy and betrayal in a generally gloomy world.
The book opens with “Beautiful!” in which Californian and former astronaut Hunter celebrates his 80th birthday. Since his celestial voyage long ago, he’s been depressed, as humanity seems insignificant compared to the vast galaxies. Now he hopes to make a difference in the world with a charitable act, but it may not be enough. Numerous other tales, most of which are also set in the Golden State, are likewise grim. Some characters merely recall a sordid past; in “Two Suitcases by the Side of the Road,” for instance, the narrator, a writer, invents a fictional backstory for the owner of the titular, abandoned suitcases, which evoke memories of his own failed relationships. Other stories involve people deceiving friends or lovers. In the title tale, pals Jeffrey Hyer, Gary White, Arnie, and Steve have a road trip reunion and discover that their shared history is filled with disloyalty. In the standout “Really, Do We Have to Know Everything?” Scott, a stay-at-home dad, puts a tracking app on his children’s phones as a precautionary measure in case of kidnapping—but then he considers using it to investigate his wife’s suspected infidelity. Perlstein occasionally links his stories together with allusions to earlier events as well as recurring characters, including all four friends in “Big Truth”; the most memorable of these is White, a successful, pompous painter/sculptor who often refers to himself in the third person.
Readers will breeze through Perlstein’s relatively short tales, some of which are only a few pages long. Despite the collection’s somber characters and plot turns, it’s more engaging than it is dismal, as it offers fables with clearly discernible morals. Californians Liz and Mel of “Taj Mahal” can’t escape constant reminders of their deceased son even when they’re in India; it’s a sad but profound revelation that makes it clear that mourning requires time and patience. The author also incorporates myriad biblical references, most notably a contemporary update on the story of Job (“The Satan and God Go Double or Nothing”) and an Adam and Eve parody (“The First Fashionistas”). The latter is indicative of the author’s sense of humor, which is even present in stories that ultimately turn dark—such as “Twins Under the Skin,” which begins with an employee and a manager at a 24-hour Biggie-Mart debating the definition of the term “Friday night” during a Thursday overnight shift. Perlstein also mutes the few instances of violence; a father in “Prescribed Burns” searches for an outlet for his son’s aggressive tendencies, and in “Medium-Boiled,” a man tries to subdue his “dark side” after his girlfriend leaves him. The author consistently offers meticulous, indelible descriptive passages. In “Max,” for example, the young narrator aptly illustrates the carefree nature of childhood: “When you’re ten, the world of adults is as complex as a cobweb and just as weightless.”
Sometimes dour but insightful fiction that will spark readers’ emotions.