Characters experience loss and death and suffer isolation and insomnia in this bleak collection of flash fiction and short stories.
Readers should get a sense of the author’s subversion of genre with the opening story, “The City That Bleeds”: it’s a mere three sentences. Most of the tales are of the literary variety and tend to focus on emotion over plot. In “North Vermont and Lexington,” for example, a man’s post-college life begins on a plane bound for LA, where he meets fellow history major Andrea. Their mutual dreams of California may be diminished by the realization that, upon reaching their destination, anxiousness and hopelessness will remain. Other stories are equally fatalistic: a man’s serious (unspecified) illness may be too much for the woman he loves (“It Rained”), while an unfamiliar passer-by upsets the delicate balance of the idyllic neighborhood of “In Strides.” Hefty doses of somberness, however, aren’t off-putting. There’s a rhythm to LaValley’s (Despumation, 2016, etc.) book, starting with its structure: two microshorts, a short story, repeat. Likewise, recurring settings or predicaments link the tales literally and metaphorically. Cold winters chill characters in the same way as a disinterested lover (“Winter in Season”); others take long, sometimes-aimless drives alone, perfectly suited to an insomniac loner (“Sleeper’s Compass”). LaValley’s prose is uncompromising but lyrical: a character sees honesty in dilapidated homes, the outside “not hidden in a fake smile behind whitened teeth.” But it’s not all gloom. The author, for one, toys with expectations: the preachy, titular “Travelin Man” predicts an unusual doomsday event; and it’s difficult not to ruminate on the mysterious but miraculous tonic in “The Secrets of Dr. Sortelli.” There are also instances of buoyancy. At first glance, “Sand Bucket” is dire, a father’s apparent eulogy for his son Chris. But the story of a boy incessantly carrying and conversing with a bucketful of sand, like an imaginary friend, has a positive message of being oneself despite what others think.
Persistently engrossing tales even at their grimmest.