Backcountry doom and gloom in tales that strive for authenticity and occasionally achieve it.
This second collection by the 24-year-old McManus (Stop Breakin’ Down, 2000) paints portraits of losers on their spirals into the depths—something that doesn’t always translate into must-read fiction. The opener, “Brood,” concerns a teenaged girl whose mother has just moved in with her new boyfriend met over the Internet. The new beau’s son, Eammon, has malformed teeth and an ugly disposition, so of course he’s been hitting on her nonstop. Everyone talks at everyone else in half-understood ciphers, coded text that takes more time to decipher than one really wants to spend. In “Aurora,” a young boy drives the freeways with his stickup-man father and pregnant, gloomy mother. They appear to be on a halfhearted sort of crime spree, the parents arguing and the father trying to keep his son’s spirits up. Meanwhile, this nuclear family thinks that the atmosphere outside is full of radiation, closing in on them like the law, who could be setting up roadblocks any minute: one of the better selections here, the story is a powerful portrait of the invisible forces waiting to engulf us all. One of the only pieces that breaks the mold is “Cowrie,” about two young friends in Australia, one an Iranian immigrant who says that, during the Iran-Iraq war, he shot an uncounted number of Iraqi soldiers his age or younger. The two hitch a ride from a couple of good ol’ boys, the Iranian dressed up as a woman to entice drivers. Along the way, he tells the men about his exploits during the war, convincing them he’s female, and they speed off down the freeway, swapping stories. Again, it doesn’t come to much—and doesn’t leave much of an impression.
McManus seems enamored of trapping his characters in hillbilly hell and stranding both them and readers there—for an inordinate amount of time.