Three-time novelist Cox (Night Talk, 1997, etc.) offers 13 stories with familiar Southern Gothic topics—child abuse, brain damage, race relations, absent fathers, fate, and free will—but her undistinguished prose adds little to the litanies of woe.
One particularly unconvincing piece, “Old Court,” set in Mississippi after the Civil War, finds a widowed mother and her teenaged son defending their remote farm from drunken intruders. Though the father here died in an accident, the other men in these somber tales disappear for all sorts of reasons: the father in “Stolen” commits suicide, leaving his troubled son with only one friend, the local junk-dealer; “Biology” shows a 15-year-old whose father has left home transferring her need for affection to an itinerant preacher who seduces her before leaving town; Dad’s dead in “Washed,” and his widow’s warnings against men have no effect on their daughter, who falls heavily for a soldier stationed near town. On a happier note, “O Tannenbaum!” takes two kids whose parents are separating to spend Christmas with their uncle’s family, where they witness the true spirit of the holiday. However badly off some of Cox’s characters seem, her stories often suggest that things could be worse: two follow the sad lives of retarded boys, one loved by his long-suffering parents, the other protected by a kind doctor. At the extreme, in “The Third of July,” an unhappy housewife plans to run away from home until she comes across a horrible auto accident during her escape. Similarly, the young boy in the title story, whose parents are divorced, thinks his life stinks until he helps out a friend who lost his entire family in a car wreck. A particularly creepy tale, “The Last Fourth Grade,” intimates that its narrator in her youth actually encouraged the attentions of her teacher’s husband, a degenerate child-molester.
You have to play the hand you’re dealt, these bitter fictions imply. And Cox's worst-case scenarios read just like that: sententious life lessons with little art.