Eleven stories of misshapen families and broken friendships disturb and unsettle.
Fridlund follows History of Wolves (2017), her marvelous and preternaturally accomplished first novel, with a collection of jarring and polished short fiction. The craft is evident in the perfect titles and the observational acuity of the sentences. In a story called “One You Run From, the Other You Fight,” a childless woman trespasses into a boy’s room: “Teenage boys always unnerved her, with their dramatic bodies and bad skin, their needy flirtation. They couldn’t decide if they wanted to be liked or hated.” In quick phrases, Fridlund’s characters are vividly embodied, such as Lora, 34, “with her lavish red nails, fingering the dry skin on her elbows.” The narrator of this story, “Here, Still,” begins with the ambiguous “I do not like her much, Lora, my best friend.” Neither will the reader. Fridlund writes about lives that feel, to their owners, “fundamentally unreal and insubstantial.” In “Marco Polo,” a young man describes his marriage slipping away like the child’s game. He ends his tale by donning his ex’s earplugs and mask for sleep, “faceless, pitiless, and perfect.” The only narrator with much agency is Katie, who remembers being an alpha girl of 14. She begins that summer reading vampire stories and ends it sexually mounting a boy her age who tells her “No, wait” in the unnerving title story, “Catapult.” It captures Katie’s intelligence and heedless insistence on launching from childhood. This is darker, thornier terrain than Mattie Furston navigated in History of Wolves, but the geography is similar: the Upper Midwest, the Iron Range, existentially lonely rural and suburban outposts. Each story mixes its humans with other mammals—rabbits, mice, bears, and especially dogs. Fridlund insists on functions primal and rude. She likes the color yellow for teeth and toenails, linoleum, rabbit fur, and toothpicks. Her stories evoke Flannery O’Connor's masterly way with grotesquery but deviate in Fridlund’s contempt for faith.
Bracing, often brilliant stories deliver a shock to the routine narratives we tell.