The 12 connected stories in this debut describe schemes and dreams among the inhabitants of a poor coastal town on Long Island, New York.
In the opening story, Will works in a bowling alley collecting “dead wood,” pins that escape the mechanical sweeper. His roommate, Dorian, has a scam involving mattresses. Will’s girlfriend, Carla, tells him about rehab, to which she will return. Dorian calls asking for bail money. A naked young man fights police at a gas station. This is life in Mastic Beach, a town of bungalows and dead-end jobs a few miles from the wealthy Hamptons. Characters recur in different stories, and some of the action in several seems to occupy the same couple of days. Mowdy grew up there, and he captures these frayed, mostly pre-30 lives with well-chosen details in subdued prose touched by empathy and irony. A jingle writer learns that a hooker mentally hums one of his ditties to keep her mind off certain aspects of work. A fellow who exploits his good looks with both sexes gets comeuppance from an older woman: “You are a harmless and gutless little fraud.” In a stylistically ambitious story, a boy seems drawn in to his father’s Vietnam War PTSD and thinks the man’s “breath sounds like a faraway scream.” Jay-Jay covets a yellow Caprice Classic and dreams of escape. He’ll get the car in another story that revisits the mattress scam, but he goes nowhere. The naked guy at the gas station turns out to be tripping on acid. He’s mentioned in five stories, an atypical case of extreme behavior in a community where struggle and setbacks are constants but despair is surprisingly rare.
The author has a fine eye, and his prose can see autumn leaves “fall like loose change from the trees.” It needs to do that more often.