In Knox’s (After the Gazebo, 2015, etc.) latest short story collection, characters struggle to maintain connections with others despite natural disasters and more mundane circumstances, such as aging.
Haley and her parents hardly have it easy in drought-ridden Toledo, Ohio, in the opening title story. They take family outings to a nearly empty downtown; water is rationed, so Haley’s dad gives her some of his supply despite his own cracked lips. Other tales also feature social units, typically familial, facing menaces that bring emotional torment to the surface. A man named Owen, for example, in “Running Toward the Sun,” is racing to help raise money for breast and reproductive-system cancer research. But an unexpected calamity forces him to face the truth that he’s running from: the fact that his wife, a cancer survivor, has cheated on him multiple times. In “A Perpetual State of Awe,” a woman and her son are stuck inside their home due to a heavy snowstorm, and the abode is at risk of collapsing—much like her marriage. In other instances, families simply strive to stay together; an elderly, troubled couple finds common ground in “The Couple on the Roof.” There are occasional touches of sci-fi, but Knox so adeptly molds her believable characters that the apocalyptic settings seem less surreal. In “Nebraska,” for instance, a small-town woman searches for items in an overcrowded local grocery store that’s full of people who are missing body parts or growing extra ones. The muted aspect of the genre elements mirrors the cautious tone of Knox’s prose: “Houses are being built everywhere, exact replicas of each other excepting the color of the paint, or the direction the garage is facing.” The tales are effectively linked by recurring themes but also by recurring characters—most notably the tattooed loner Rattle, who makes three appearances as part of a doomed relationship (“Don’t Tease the Elephants”); as the father of an estranged daughter (“West on N Road”); and, possibly, on his deathbed (“The Slope of a Line”).
A set of penetrating and absorbing tales.