A mixed-bag debut collection of ten stories and a novella, mostly concerned with midlife and identity crises, divorce, alcoholism, parental neglect, and adolescent forbearance and rebellion in fragmented Middle American households.
Many of these pieces are frustratingly slight, including “Rose” (an elderly widow’s memories of her timorous husband), “Iceland” (an American woman’s impulsive and pointless sexual adventure in Italy), and “First Sex” (an Eagle Scout math prodigy loses both his innocence and his convictions about his own decency and worth). Ex-spouses in flight from their responsibilities are contrasted with the infinitely more sentient children whom they keep disappointing (“The Troubled Dog,” “Stealing”); others exhibit deceit or incompetence that variously afflict innocent people (a young girl temporarily stricken with “white blindness” in “Visions”; a teenager who finds escape from his mother’s frailties in the “new, bad habits” that come all too easily to him in “Outlaws”). Three stories rise above the general level of mediocrity. “Braces” marshalls an abundance of skillfully selected detail in portraying a subdued 15-year-old “caught in the middle” of his father’s whiny futility and his mother’s recklessness. The novella “Retribution” slowly builds up a frighteningly convincing characterization of teenaged Rachel, whose gentle mother is slowly dying of cancer. Fulton deftly dramatizes the manner in which the presence of impending death—and the need to cheat it—breed in the confused girl an irrational “meanness” that strikes out violently, then, as suddenly and as cryptically, simply disappears. Best of all is “Liars,” about a teenager’s skiing trip with his divorced father and the latter’s smug girlfriend. It’s a moving story filled with surprising developments, in which the metaphor of downhill skiing beautifully suggests the core of carelessness and daring that the boy perceives in his father, cannot comprehend, yet blindly, inexplicably emulates.
Undistinguished work, for the most part. But “Retribution” and “Liars” offer hopeful glimpses of the heights Fulton may be capable of scaling.