A debut story collection about hard-luck denizens of rural and exurban Iowa.
The heartland, as captured in Lesmeister’s debut, is a downcast place, replete with meth shacks, mortality, and regret. The narrator of “Burrowing Animals” is a recovering addict who’s desperate to prove he’s worthy of seeing his children again; in “Lie Here Next to Me,” a young woman tries to protect her dying mother from her grandmother’s interventions; in “A Real Future,” one of the few black residents of a rural county endures a series of headaches and humiliations from everyone from DMV workers to people judging his marriage to a white woman. Lesmeister’s vision of Iowa isn't exclusively somber, though. He can bring wit and lightness to these dirty-realist tales, as in “Today You’re Calling Me Lou,” in which the narrator ferries his foulmouthed, no-nonsense grandmother to a garage sale. (“She laughs and it sounds like motor oil gurgling around her lungs.”) He can also craft tender characterizations, as in “Between the Fireflies,” in which two fifth-graders are charged with shooting rabbits approaching a neighborhood garden, a task lightly in parallel to the girl’s father’s deployment in the Middle East. And like any good short story writer, he can deliver an eye-catching opening (“Elbow and I ducked out of our nephew’s birthday party and drove to Walmart to check on ammo prices”), though a broader canvas might improve some of these stories, which sometimes close on notes of pat ambiguity. But for a first-timer, Lesmeister has developed an admirably concise style and a knack for capturing people during difficult coming-of-age moments or dispiriting processes of decline. Like the amateur cowherds in the title story, they’re recognizing that life is often disorderly, with help hard to come by.
A gritty, emotionally sensitive clutch of stories.