Short stories that explore forlorn lives in Middle America.
Originally published in 2000, this is a reissue of Must’s (Brother Carnival, 2018, etc.) first collection of short stories, 16 mostly linked tales primarily set in the small, “suffocating,” eastern Pennsylvania town of Hebron, outside of Erie, during the 1960s. This is mill, refinery, pottery, and railroad country. Most of the stories focus on the Daugherty family: two brothers, Westley and Jim; their parents, Margaret and Joe, who live in a “place of marital barrenness”; and assorted relatives. Sex is a prominent theme, usually presented in rather perverse, juvenile ways. As the character who’s working as a gigolo in “Day Laborer” says, “There are times when depravity beckons each of us down.” Copulation scenes abound, as do references to genitals, usually in colorful language—“Her pussy’s drier than an Okie dust bowl.” It gets rather tiresome. The title story deals with Westley visiting his Aunt Min and Uncle George, who run the Skyline Drive-in near Hebron. His uncle recounts the time his wife accidentally used banjo grease instead of Vaseline as a sexual lubricant—“I felt like she had taken a blowtorch to my pecker.” The next morning, Westley and George canvass the parking lot picking up condoms, ladies’ undergarments, and dollar bills. “Popeye’s Dead,” a reference to Jim’s penis, seems to owe something to Joyce’s “Araby.” The young brothers visit a local bazaar, and Jim experiences firsthand the midway sideshow’s tawdry world of women. “Big Whitey” is an incisive tale about a young man who gets a job at a White Castle in New York City. “Nolde’s Sun,” which references the German-Dutch painter, is a grim story about the accidental death of 3-year-old Ben when the Daughertys were visiting family friends. People adrift trying to escape their pasts.
For the most part, disappointing, off-putting works played in a minor key.