Salinger meets Rabelais in a fresh, profoundly human debut collection that meditates on growing up, falling apart and simply being dazzled or bollixed by the wondrous puzzlement of life.
Pushcart Prize–winner Puchner crams his nine terrific stories with memorable and just-right detail, bits of observation that work like bite-sized poems. The author has a sharp eye and a warm touch, and it’s impossible not to identify with his mixed-up characters and the messy lives they gamely muddle through. Hired to assist special needs cases, a reluctant social worker discovers that his “developmentally disabled” charges are themselves unsung heroes, dear and tough (“Children of God”); combing the aisles of a pet store for neon tetras for the family aquarium, a young son senses something strange—his dad’s puppyish crush on the sexy salesclerk (“Neon Tetras”); asked to write an essay for Lit 101 about Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” a mall-minded teen queen turns in a nightmare, dubbing the august Irish seer a “mentally ill person” whose poetry pales beside that of heartthrob Colin Sweep, lead singer of the death-metal monstrosity, Salacious Universe (“Essay #3: Leda and the Swan”). Comedy is Puchner’s forte, but he’s especially good at the bittersweet. “Mission,” about the star student of an ESL class who plots revenge after the teacher dares to question her word choice, is perhaps the best story here. The student’s affronted hot-headedness is both crazy and heartbreaking, and so too are the lengths to which her teacher goes in order to reclaim his “lost sheep.” Puchner is a hip writer, his language colloquial and his tone knowing. But he’s never ironic, never less than wise.
Don’t miss this introduction to a genuinely talented find.