A provocative debut collection of 12 edgy, effectively varied tales, many set in what appears to be their author’s home state of Indiana.
Rigorous understatement is Stuckey-French’s game, and the few comparatively flat stories here either don't move far enough away from their ho-hum premises or don’t develop potentially intriguing situations. Respective examples are “Blessing,” in which a middle-aged father’s outing with his college-student son only hints at the ironies of age offering reassurances, if not certainties, to youth; and “Scavenger Hunt,” an overattenuated black comedy that implicitly compares a long-divorced woman’s neurotic instability to both the title game and TV’s lowbrow mock-documentary Unsolved Mysteries. The searching “Electric Wizard” builds a contrast between a poetry teacher’s relationship with her two young daughters and the bereaved couple—parents of a student who has killed himself—who importune her for proof “that his suicidal behavior arose from sheer genius.” But it feels like a half-finished version of a longer, more detailed story. A comparable thickness of conception and implication appears in several pieces, and works best in “Junior,” a carefully controlled portrayal of a moody juvenile misfit who’s initially attracted to, then discouraged by, her extended family’s eccentricity and needfulness; “The Visible Man,” in which a widow passively resigned to life in an old age home finds opportunities for mischief and a kind of control in her “friendship” with her suggestible former employer; and the superb “Search and Rescue”: a wonderfully imagined story, developed in an unusual and very moving way, that skillfully charts the tensions between two very different office co-workers: a volunteer scuba driver dedicated to retrieving drowning victims, and a lonely younger woman chained to the family demands imposed by her father, a helpless Alzheimer’s victim.
A bit uneven, then, but strong debut. One hopes Stuckey-French will soon test her gift for exploring arrestingly unconventional characters and conflicts in the ampler latitudes of the novel.