A gritty, emotionally sensitive clutch of stories.

WE COULD'VE BEEN HAPPY HERE

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.

Pub Date: May 16, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-944850-05-0

Page Count: 211

Publisher: MG Press

Review Posted Online: March 7, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2017

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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