Winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, this well-worked debut collection of 11 stories delineates life’s wrenching milestones: divorce, moving, the death of a parent.
Tomlinson’s protagonists, mostly citizens of rural Kentucky, are adults in various stages of transition, not quite sure where they’re headed. In the strong opener, “First Husband, First Wife,” Cheryl has had two subsequent spouses but still can’t break her connection with the baleful Jerry, who keeps getting her into trouble with the law. “The Accomplished Son” follows Polk, a young army specialist who returns home from Iraq with his pregnant wife. He’s too late to attend the funeral of his father, wheelchair-bound for a dozen years after a gun accident that involved the town lawyer. The rage of war combined with a desperate urge to feel love for his unborn child sends Polk on a terrible mission to the lawyer’s house, seeking revenge for the catastrophe that soured his father’s life, and his own. The two stories that together form the title feature the same characters. “Things Kept” shows sisters Cass and LeAnn grappling with a crisis: They need to raise quick money to pay off the delinquent taxes their dotty mother owes on the family house in Spivey, Ky. LeAnn, who lives in Ohio, hatches the idea of selling Ma’s antique desk to salesman Dexter Chalk, a former boyfriend with whom LeAnn happens to be having an adulterous affair. In “Things Left Behind,” the lovers meet in a motel room out of a desperate need to feel in control of their careening lives. Alcoholic Dex is trying to stay sober, while LeAnn recognizes that the person who’s changed in her marriage is not her narrow-minded husband, but rather herself. Like all of Tomlinson’s characters, these two ring true and utterly human.
A wonderful collection notable for its clean prose and tone of quiet, stubborn dignity.