Another fine collection from short-fiction master McCorkle (Creatures of Habit, 2001, etc.), in a very dark mood indeed.
The title story sets the tone, limning the constricted life of a woman who stays home with her dying mother while her selfish married sisters patronize her as they always have. Debby was the unusual one who “dated people of different colors” and wore white shoes after Labor Day; now she’s trapped by her own niceness and can only dream, “Pack a bag. Pull the plug. Take your turn.” Death is a frequent visitor here. The sexy, can’t-pin-him-down boyfriend in “Driving to the Moon” lost his parents in a plane crash at 17 and flits in and out of the narrator’s life after high school, phoning whenever there’s an air disaster. The living cling to the dead in “Another Dimension,” the saddest piece. After their mother dies, 11-year-old Jimmy and eight-year-old Ann sabotage their father’s happiness with a kind waitress; Jimmy can’t tolerate her low-class ways, and Ann goes along, even though she’s drawn to the woman’s warmth. In the framing narrative, we see the adult siblings unable to sustain loving relationships, while the spurned waitress is a contented grandmother. Only the ultrasarcastic “PS,” a woman’s post-divorce letter to the marriage counselor who didn’t help, provides a welcome dose of McCorkle’s tart humor, and it’s extra tart here. (“I suspect being bored and having your mind wander during marriage counseling is not a good sign.”) “Magic Words” is downright scary, as a woman heading toward a first-time adulterous tryst is stymied by a girl fleeing her gang’s spookily angry “leader,” who is terrorizing their retired math teacher. The lone tender note is struck in “Intervention,” about a woman comforting her alcoholic husband because he forgave her an affair and her own drunkenness.
The author’s trademark gifts—vivid, economical characterizations, distinctive voices, fierce intelligence—are evident on every page. Now let’s hope she cheers up a little next time.