A stunning debut collection from Unferth (Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, 2011, etc.), in which a maverick cast of lonely characters wades through life’s uncertainties.
Unferth, whose collection of short-short fiction, Minor Robberies (2007), was published by McSweeney’s, re-emerges with 39 poignant, sharp-edged stories that cut right to the bone of the human psyche with precision and grace. The collection opens with the Pushcart Prize–winning “Likeable,” a story ironically about a woman who is so “inconveniently unlikable…she will have to be shoved into a hole and left there.” While this woman sadly capitulates to her fate, the rest of the books’ inhabitants don’t fold so willingly (at least not without a fight or the haphazard adoption of two turtles). They’re disenchanted, mordantly obsessive, delusional, yet nevertheless utterly relatable in their indefatigable search for love and acceptance, each one quietly shouldering “the familiar slow-burn panic that you were doing nothing with your life, had not lived up to your ‘potential,’ or, worse, you had and it changed nothing.” In “Flaws,” a couple’s listless gossiping devolves into a gloves-off screaming match (succinctly encapsulated in one paragraph). In another story, a father, ignoring the glaring chasms in his family life, signs up for a prison mentoring program and becomes deeply invested in a one-sided relationship. Meanwhile, the title story’s protagonist, a clairvoyant adjunct professor—who can predict how long someone has to live—arrives at a moral crossroads when she falls in love with her failing student. Prickly dilemmas, physical and existential, abound in these allegorical stories, each terrifically mundane and told with an exquisite restraint that drolly captures the inherent hope of humanity, or, “the sheer human stubbornness that causes those worse off...to grab hold and climb back into the world of the living, ‘optimism,’ one might call it.”
Chock-full of emotional insight and comic verve, Unferth’s beguiling stories are not to be missed.