This is a writer who thinks hard and deep about the country that forges his fiction.

GLOSSARY FOR THE END OF DAYS

STORIES

A collection of stories in search of an America that resists road mapping.

In nine stories and two short “interludes,” Stansel presents protagonists from all over the country in search of their identities (from sexual orientation to musical category), attempting to come to terms with mortality (their own and others), trying to find meaning and order in a world of chance and chaos. Wherever they go, they find themselves—and they generally find themselves adrift.  But, as one of the narrators advises, “The world tells us things if only we bother to hear it.” With story formats ranging from question-and-answer to the alphabetical glossary of the title story, the centerpiece of the collection is “The Caller,” based around a radio call-in show. The protagonist, Max, concocts a tale to share on Voices for the Lost, a program about people who have disappeared in the Mexican drug wars, saying his brother disappeared near Juarez. He did lose his brother to drug violence, though not to a Mexican drug cartel, and he invents the story to provide a connection with others on the program, a connection that can offer some relief from his aimless torpor, “a sad amazement at still being alive.” Inevitably, though, connection leads to consequences beyond his control. Elsewhere, the thematic ambition turns heavier handed. In “North out of Houston,” a family faces a metaphysical crisis as they're stalled on the highway while trying to evacuate ahead of a tropical storm. Mother, father, and son must each confront and attempt to resolve some issue related to sexuality amid a storm that is plainly metaphorical as well as natural. There is just too much symbolic baggage for a single story to carry.  In “Modern Sounds in Country and Western,” a Brooklyn band’s progression from indie to alt-country results in a breakthrough hit and a terrorist attack. There’s a lot going on in these stories and a lot at stake, but the philosophical weight is sometimes too much for the slighter among them to bear.

This is a writer who thinks hard and deep about the country that forges his fiction.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-946724-34-2

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2020

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Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

LUCY BY THE SEA

Lucy Barton flees pandemic-stricken New York City for Maine with ex-husband William.

This is the third time Lucy has chronicled the events and emotions that shape her life, and the voice that was so fresh and specific in My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), already sounding rather tired in Oh, William! (2021), is positively worn out here. Fatigue and disorientation are natural responses to a cataclysmic upheaval like the coronavirus, but unfortunately, it’s Strout’s imagination that seems exhausted in this meandering tale, which follows Lucy and William to Maine, relates their experiences there in haphazard fashion, and closes with their return to New York. Within this broad story arc, Lucy’s narration rambles from topic to topic: her newfound closeness with William; his unfaithfulness when they were married; their two daughters’ marital and health issues; her growing friendship with Bob Burgess; the surprise reappearance of William’s half sister, Lois; and memories of Lucy’s impoverished childhood, troubled relations with her parents, and ongoing difficulties with her sister, Vicky. To readers of Strout’s previous books, it’s all unduly familiar, indeed stale, an impression reinforced when the author takes a searing emotional turning point from The Burgess Boys (2013) and a painful refusal of connection in Oh William! and recycles them as peripheral plot points. The novel’s early pages do nicely capture the sense of disbelief so many felt in the pandemic’s early days, but Lucy’s view from rural safety of the havoc wrought in New York feels superficial and possibly offensive. Strout’s characteristic acuity about complex human relationships returns in a final scene between Lucy and her daughters, but from a writer of such abundant gifts and past accomplishments, this has to be rated a disappointment.

Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-44606-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2022

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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