The nine stories in this collection by Puchner (Model Home, 2010, etc.) range from the domestic to the surreal.
Even the most seemingly realistic of them, however, hint at cracks under the surface of normal life in the suburban United States. Puchner often casts an eye on the sheer strangeness of aging, whether it’s during the sudden onslaught of puberty or the slow decline from middle age onward. "Right This Instant" compresses all the agonies of adolescence into a single turning point, as confused Josh—missing his father, hating the guy who has replaced him, and newly introduced to a potent strain of marijuana by an older kid down the street—suddenly convinces himself that his mom is a robot. The oddest, and possibly the strongest, story in the volume takes this theme to its logical extreme. In "Beautiful Monsters," a boy and a girl, both “Perennials” whose aging has been delayed indefinitely at a pre-pubescent stage, are appalled and fascinated to encounter a “Senescent,” a grown man with a “strange hairy body and giant shoulders tucked in like a vulture’s.” The collection sometimes suffers from repetition of plots: an odd number of the stories, for example, hinge on crises that result when a caregiver puts a young child in radical danger. But they’re intriguingly varied in terms of characters and setting and particularly in tone. Puchner can be wildly funny, as in "Trojan Whores Hate You Back," a mordant tale of a would-be comeback tour by a punk band whose members now use hemorrhoid pillows and wear windbreakers and blue linen shorts. Or oddly touching, as in "Mothership," in which a self-involved young woman recently released from drug treatment takes her niece and nephew trick-or-treating, to mixed results.
Without fundamentally challenging the traditional short story structure, the author finds a way to bend it to suit a skewed and fantastic vision of the world.