Elegant, elegiac stories about people whose lives—like everyone’s—haven’t worked out quite as planned.
“Referred Pain” is a medical term for when “the place where it hurts is not the source of the trouble,” and the characters here struggle to find out why they ache. In the title story, a Kafkaesque tour de force, the son of Holocaust survivors cracks a tooth on an olive pit and turns his ensuing and labyrinthine dental problems into a test of suffering. In “Hostages to Fortune,” the painful realism of a middle-aged couple’s bickering over their children is oddly heightened by the reader’s growing realization that the children are imaginary. The children in “The Trip to Halawa Valley,” however, are all-too-real causes of distress for a divorced couple who come together briefly at their oldest son’s wedding. The two briefly recapture their old intimacy but with it their shared sense of loss and disappointment. The protagonists of “Sightings of Loretta” and “Francesca” are men who learn how little they know, or are known by, their loving wives. Several stories among the 12 here use the writing process almost as metaphor. “Intrusions” lays out an incident—the attempted robbery of the narrator when she was a young mother—then deconstructs and reconstructs the elements to find its real subject: fear of the choices made in a life. “The Word” not written down is lost forever. And the aging novelist of “By a Dimming Light” hires an assistant at the onset of blindness, and the more he depends on the younger man’s decency, the more paranoid he becomes. Many tales also venture into dreamlike surrealism, as in the parallel world of “The Stone Master,” the fairy-tale abstraction of “Twisted Tales,” and the myth-making of “Deadly Nightshade.”
With echoes of Cheever, early Updike, even Shirley Jackson, Schwartz (In the Family Way, 1999, etc.) is master of stories that reflect an era’s uneasy psyche: sad yet wryly comic, told at a slight remove yet deeply moving.