Ten stories in a first collection, mostly about middle-aged Southern men coping with a lifetime of regrets and disappointments, from PEN/Faulkner finalist Hays (The Dixie Association, 1984, etc.).
In “The Rites of Love,” the most fully realized piece here, a woman whose only son is killed in a car accident goes to see her first lover, a football player paralyzed from the neck down after a high-school game. Her red silk dress, black underwear and full-length rabbit coat, worn on the night she lost her virginity, become a powerful metaphor for passion lost. “Salvage” also revolves around a marriage haunted by lost love. A man whose wife is in a fatal coma faces up to his “coward’s life” and drives out to visit a girlfriend from 60 years ago, now widowed. “Why He Did It” follows the circuitous rationalizations of a man who exposed himself to his stepdaughter so she would go live with her father; she retaliates years later by becoming engaged to his beloved only son, precipitating a tailspin. In “Material,” a couple is caught in flagrante by the woman’s other lover, who shatters a window and uses a knife. This over-the-top opening is followed by more clichés: the surprised lovers are a graduate student in creative writing and her thesis advisor, whose wife leaves him when the man with the knife tells her about the affair. “Private Dance” begins when a wife finds her husband in his basement lair watching a pornographic video and winds its way through a series of downward spirals that leave the man fired from his coaching job, living in a motel room, paying for sex with the porn star of his dreams. In the title story, 81-year-old Bud McMahon is dying of esophageal cancer. His wife brings their only son to see him in hopes that they can reconcile at last, a proposition that seems as hopeless as his diagnosis.
Repetitious and trite, despite a few plainspoken, heart-rending moments.