Seven longish tales explore newcomer Rowell’s North Carolina roots—and a world increasingly indistinguishable from the entertainment industry.
The title story is a second-person account of a life so influenced by Lawrence Welk, Batman, and Underdog that the difference between reality and television begins to blur: “And you stand there in the spotlight, holding your props, staring out the window at the streetlamp, not moving, as if waiting for your cue to begin the scene.” The film theme continues in “Spectators in Love,” a story that describes a boy’s fascination with a Mary Poppins LP—a replacement for family—then follows his interest in drama to his career as a film critic, an ultimately hollow life. A New York lesbian takes her new big-city values back home for her brother’s wedding in North Carolina (“The Mother-of-the-Groom and I”), where she’s sure to learn something about competing morals: “But maybe it’s just the way different people have of seeing the same exact thing; one person’s mile is wide, another person’s river is long.” The wildlife of “Wildlife of Coastal Carolina” consists of the crazy cast of characters a man encounters when he wakes up from a self-imposed depression-inspired sleeping binge after a youngster takes his advice to blow the beach community of Duck Island; and, in “Saviors,” a gay conductor is set up on a blind date in what may amount to the best possible example of humanity’s inability to engineer genuine feeling between people. Rowell’s pieces are all probably longer than they need to be, but you sense the author trying out his wings and combining themes for the longer effort sure to come. And even here the sensibility always finds a sweet, poignant note: “He could stand here forever, he thinks . . . And that’s good enough . . . ; the city needs people who are merely content to just look at it, to watch it, to regard it from a distance . . . .”
Accomplished and promising.