A series of 13 punchy, white-trashy takes on displacement and youthful perplexity.
The first, “Adam’s Curse,” is a mere two pages long, and demonstrates nicely the strange beauty of Downs’s imagination. The 19-year-old college-dropout narrator recounts blandly the decision by his female relatives to live without men—“they simply exhaled the men like sighs from their houses.” The narrator, who lives in the basement of his aunt’s house, observes both sides of the sexual divide, all the while simply aching to hop in the car of the willing Kroger checkout girl and take a ride with her. The narrator of “Snack Cakes,” as in many of the stories, is a high-school boy on the cusp of manhood, trying to navigate the dysfunctional trajectories of various family members—in this case, a grandfather who married six times still can’t quite decide which wife he loves best. In the title story, the boy’s mother has left him for a month in the care of his grandmother, Maw-Maw, in Joelton, Ky., in order to find an apartment and new life for them in Springfield, Mo. The boy, Crawford, isn’t sure what to think: “Every day your mother wakes up and says it’s a new day,” Maw-Maw tells him skeptically. “But the truth is there aren’t any new days.” “Field Trip” fuses a young man’s sexual daydreams into a schoolbus outing, while “Freedom Rides” pursues a soured middle-school trip through civil-rights history. Perhaps the most ambitious and compelling story here is “Ain’t I a King, Too?,” involving the identity crisis of a middle-aged loner fleeing domestic tribulation back in Kentucky in 1935, who arrives in Shreveport, La., only to be mistaken for the recently deceased senator, Huey Long.
Downs, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, is a writer to watch. His work has a cerebral, surreal element that requires a little piecing together.