Tales of grace and despair abound in a new short story collection from Mulhern (Drenched to the Bone, 2016, etc.).
Most of these stories follow Molly Bonamici, a girl coming of age in Italian-American Boston. Her parents are consumed by work, so her main bond is with her beloved grandmother, or “Nonna.” In “Through a Convent Gate,” Molly and Nonna visit a crabby alcoholic neighbor’s home—a trip that first seems compassionate but then becomes a robbery. In “Mannequin,” Molly’s prank on an obnoxious college roommate leads to an unexpectedly extreme outcome. In “Smoke Rings,” she and Nonna conspire to fake an injury and scam a bank manager, discussing some facts of life afterward, and in “Myra Bocca,” an older Molly living in Florida encounters an intrusive shop proprietor who unexpectedly steals her credit card. Only two entries focus on other characters: the title story, in which a young boy forms an unlikely bond with a perpetually unlucky and alcoholic neighbor, and the final piece, which tells of a young teacher in a dysfunctional classroom, struggling to understand his own divorce. Mulhern demonstrates considerable powers of description, particularly when portraying his saddest characters: one woman, for example, has “broken capillaries that sloped down the sides of her nostrils” and “spindly, awkward limbs [that] stuck out of a round body, like you might see in a kindergartner’s rendering of a person.” Another of the author’s strengths is in eliciting compassion for less-than-likable figures. Nonna, for example, sneers at others and cheerfully damages Molly’s moral compass, but a glimpse of her aging, bruised body connotes a life of hard living. Molly herself is harder to pin down, showing compassion in some stories and cold detachment in others. Some of the material is repeated with variations—one story, for example, appears again as part of a later, longer piece, and it’s debatable whether this repetition creates meaningful layers or simply takes up space. Mulhern also offers some distractingly over-the-top moments (including a few deaths that seem almost cartoonish), but the quieter scenes show the mind of a talented writer at work.
A mostly enjoyable, if flawed, set of stories.