An eclectic cast of characters populates Chatagnier’s debut collection.
These stories include a wide array of American jobs and types. There’s a police officer, a physician’s assistant, an engineer at a seed company, artists who work in various media, sexually ambiguous students at a Christian college, and even an assistant manager/“de facto mechanic” for a rotating restaurant on top of a bank building in downtown Fresno. In the weaker stories the central characters—a piano player trying to play impossible etudes, a photographer who takes pictures of disasters, a depressed comedian, and a painter whose best work is received with indifference—all represent, a little too predictably, the difficulty and indignities inherent in making art. It isn’t news that childhood pain can inspire artistic striving or that collectors are often uninterested in what an artist judges is his finest work. By contrast, the collection’s strongest stories are about unexceptional people who live and work in the parts of California that nobody visits. The best is “The Top of Fresno,” which evinces real emotional intelligence. Its mechanic narrator considers having an affair with a co-worker, but he can’t quite commit. “I stayed on the edge of the bed, thinking about how either choice would have led to a lifetime of regret,” he recalls. “Choosing her bed would have been the more interesting regret, and the lesser regret in general. It would not have added mass to the accumulating regrets about my inability to act. It could have had its own special drawer.” Thematically speaking, quiet desperation in California’s arid inland counties is fertile soil.
Chatagnier is at his best when plumbing the emotional depths of ordinary lives rather than musing about the origins and value of art.