The past lies heavy on these eight stories: old wars, old deceptions, old childhood traumas.
The crisply written but relatively thin opening pieces (“Leslie and Sam,” “Tide Pool”) are the exception, each having as its subject a young woman’s problems with her difficult mate. With “The Perfect Wife,” though, we slide back into the recent past as an Argentine rancher/politician bemoans a bizarre deception. Sergio Ramírez has been collaborating with an American economist on a huge gas pipeline project, and the economist’s wife sweet-talks the peasants into surrendering their land. It turns out that this “wife” is a hired actress, and the small irony is that the hard-nosed Ramírez will fleece his own people but get upset over the Yankee’s trick. “Cuban Nights” looks back at the career of an acclaimed American sculptor’s accidental gift of massive sculptures to Fidel Castro, while at the start of “The Writer’s Widow,” a Great American Writer is six feet under; the story is about a bitter family dispute over his literary and financial legacy. In both, Unger tells but doesn’t show, freezing out the reader. The final three (“Autobiography,” “Matisse,” “Looking for War”) are related and may contain elements of Unger’s life. The focus is on a teenage boy hustling johns in New York and Boston: a grim life, though he has older brother Harry and buddy Fallon as protectors. Then, as the narrator looks back, the past rearranges itself, and his epiphany is that the owner of their New York flophouse wasn’t the monster he’d imagined, but their benefactor. In the title story, Harry is now a Vietnam vet, a basket case, while the narrator is looking for his own war to record for history. He finds it in 1970s Paraguay, but his story is eclipsed by an account of the Guaraní Indians and their near extermination.
A disappointing mishmash of a first collection (from the author of four novels, most recently Voices From Silence, 1995).