Cook, who has worked on the radio show This American Life, debuts with 12 mercilessly in-your-face stories.
Many exist in a parallel universe where nature and/or society has become a menacing force. A woman living in a prisonlike “shelter for widows and other unwanteds” narrates the only moderately horrifying opening story, “Moving On.” Her Placement Team finds her a new husband once she starts following their rules for erasing memories of her past. The second story, “The Way the End of Days Should Be,” plunges into an apocalyptic world where floodwaters rise unstoppably. No escape is possible in “It’s Coming,” either, though the menace here remains unnamed and therefore even more frightening. Both stories have victims/protagonists whose wealth and authority, not to mention careful preparations, prove useless. Water returns as a prime enemy, at least initially, in the title story about three men whose fishing vacation and friendships go horribly wrong when they can’t find the supposedly nearby lakeshore. People’s need for connection continually gets trampled. Dangerously needy crowds collect like moths around the flame of a young woman’s good fortune in “The Mast Year.” “Somebody’s Baby” and “Marrying Up” evince primal maternal fears. In the former, a man steals babies whenever mothers let their guards down; in the latter, a woman’s healthy baby and husband brutalize her. In “A Wanted Man,” about loneliness more than sex, a man who can impregnate 50 women in a day is reminiscent of a TV Western gunslinger—admired, envied and marked by those who want to replace him. The erotic nature of teen friendship reaches demented lengths in “Girl on Girl.” The strongest, relatively most realistic and hopeful story, “Meteorologist Dave Santana,” follows a sexually predatory woman who stalks her neighbor for years while lying to herself that all she cares about is the chase.
Cook’s sharply honed prose packs an intellectual yet disturbing wallop. Be forewarned: Reading too many of these stories in one sitting may cause suicidal thoughts.