In this novella and seven stories set in the southwest, the mostly working-class characters struggle to rise beyond their pasts and their own worst tendencies with varying degrees of success.
In the opening story, “Great Blue,” a restaurant worker with a history of “bad choices” falls for a “sweet-skinny and ginger-haired” dishwasher with a master’s degree, a killer recipe for marinated olives, and a taste for drugs. Despite moments of genuine sweetness, it doesn’t end well. “Fat Jacks” is bittersweet but more hopeful as a former computer salesman, now night shift “Security Engineer,” makes a strenuous effort to pull his life together when his ex-wife understandably finds him too irresponsible to trust with their young son. Four stories deal with grief: after her father’s sudden death, a teenager takes a part-time job at a nursing home where she bonds, not quite believably, with a former biker over the Led Zeppelin song “Kashmir”; “Sign,” which has an autobiographical feel given its writer narrator, offers a nuanced exploration of grief that combines love, anger, and a middle-aged daughter’s grudging identification with her dead father; an upwardly mobile Native American college student returns to her aunt’s double-wide to mourn her cousin’s suicide in “Up Near Pasco”; and in “Nautiloid,” the jokey tone of the gay narrator never masks his sorrow over the death of his best friend from cancer. Less successful, the long story “Cyndra Won’t Get Out of the Truck,” about the failing marriage between a Marine who returns from Iraq with a drinking problem and the young wife who gambles away their savings, leans on a message of salvation through recovery groups. And the eponymous novella, about a community of losers on the mend in a semicommune threatened by an insidiously dangerous newcomer, is too thick with serpent-in-Eden, good-and-evil imagery and melodrama.
Although the uplift can get heavy-handed, at her best, Sojourner (29, 2014, etc.) uses passion, high-energy storytelling, and unflinching empathy to break the reader’s heart.