Eleven debut stories from a middle-aged, of-the-masses, school-of-hard-knocks autodidact.
The roughhewn feel of these tales is both their strength and their weakness. Just as often as they revel in honesty sublime and undecorated, they falter as stories trying to stand alone. The best of the bunch is the title piece, a tale of men down on their luck, finding work in an orange grove where they can eat the fruit that has fallen but not that on the trees, and their banter is reminiscent of the men immortalized in the first section of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Another tale, first published in Esquire (“The Rain Barrel”), is the haunting account of a family vying for a father’s inheritance before old age kills him. Others include “Magic,” about a man who doesn’t bother to keep track of the number of times he’s been to jail—he wanders from bars where waitresses sing karaoke to bridges where it takes four seconds for the stones he throws over the edge (as an experiment) to hit bottom; “Jon-Clod,” in which a boy learns the ambivalence of familial love as he learns of a new baby on the way and follows his father into a snowy evening toward epiphany; “Mackerel,” a self-referential tale about an instructor of war fiction experiencing a different sort of vet’s alienation when he gives his own story to an uninterested class; and “Jade,” a portrait of a Vietnam vet trying to escape his memories by hunting in the Maine woods but finding there only an unlikely other with whom he can reenact certain horrors. Even as these tales please, better examples of similar stories come to mind, and one wishes Nichols had studied craft more, relied less on experience as substitute for another kind of learning.
A rough life delivered roughly.