Coker’s (School Daze, 2013) collection of stories meditates on America’s history and the men and women who make the country so diverse.
From West Texas to Times Square, the fictional stories travel the United States and span generations to provide a look at the passions and conflicts a variety of Americans have experienced over the years. In one story, Coker writes of a complicated Mafia gangster looking for some semblance of love and sexual satisfaction. In another, an impoverished farmer embarks on a difficult quest to bring a wheelchair to his disabled son. And in the collection’s longest, most substantial story, “Earning an Education,” a young girl in the 1950s struggles to make sense of a world that is becoming increasingly complicated the older she gets. Coker deftly follows an impressive range of storylines, exploring the challenges and aspirations that make her characters’ lives unique and compelling. The characters frequently have a strong attachment to place, and it is the geography and history of the land, especially since the Great Depression, that tend to inform their personalities by limiting their worldview or encouraging them to find new vistas. Additionally, strong family ties join the characters, with sons and daughters deeply connected to their grandparents or mourning the loss of their children. The collection is by turns sentimental, shining a warm light on the memories of youth, and also dark and emotionally complicated. In one story, a woman unable to recover from the loss of her infant finds herself disconnecting from life and her husband: “Her babies were cold and dead in the ground; she was cold and dead above the ground.” Though many scenes are fit for Norman Rockwell, Coker doesn’t hide characters from violence or turmoil. In this sense, “Earning an Education” is perhaps too ambitious, as it attempts to balance segregation, lechery, gender politics and adolescent love in one story—enough material there for a stand-alone novel. Should Coker return to that story, it’s clear she’ll tell it with sincerity, courage and a passion for details.
An expansive, ambitious collection of stories that boldly shows Americans at their best and worst.