A dozen colorful short stories set in the heart of darkness that is rural America.
This year’s winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, Cashion (How the Sun Shines on Noise, 2004, etc.) offers a nimble yet emotional portrait of rough-and-tumble small-town denizens trapped in prisons of their own making. The opener, “The Girl Who Drowned at School That Time,” centers on Josephine, a young college graduate who works as the administrative assistant at a local elementary school where one of the students has drowned in a nearby pond. In a Faulkner-ian turn, the town fathers decide that a fish fry is in order, right after they drain the pond and the local hooligans take baseball bats to the turtles. It’s a grotesque play made sadder by Josephine’s cool detachment from it all. The title story, which has been adapted into a short film by director Ben Sharony, is just a heartbreaker. It’s about a boy, Harold, who agrees to be baptized in order to date the girl he idolizes, only for her to abuse his affections in the end. Several stories capture the unique hurt of childhood. In “Penmanship,” a boy tortured by the nuns at his school moves away to live with his lowlife father only to learn some hard life lessons in the process. The real gift of these stories is that they center on some absurdity but never really make fun of the people they're portraying. In “A Serious Question,” a worn-out retiree goes on a pilgrimage to Wal-Mart with the priest who has befriended her, discovering a kind of epiphany in the journey. Another outstanding entry is “Awful Pretty,” a gothic-tinged story about a son who pines for his best friend’s company and struggles with his mother’s dementia.
A sublime collection that uses compassion and subtle humor to capture heavy moments in lives lived on the margins.