Nine short stories that hinge on transformative moments.
In “Writing Class,” one of the tales in Cantwell’s (The Tollan Trilogy, 2012, etc.) latest collection, a professor teaching a writing course at Columbia University confesses to his class that they’ll likely never strike it rich as bestselling authors but quickly tells them of his belief “that writing literature, like other creative endeavors, can bring a kind of redemption to writers as well as readers.” Redemption, desperately sought and often movingly achieved, drives many of these stories. In the collection’s title story, the protagonist, Peter, seeks to help a young girl he meets in Antigua; in “True Love,” a man learns of his ex-wife’s sudden death and reflects back on their tempestuous past; and in the O. Henry–esque “Christmas in the Great Depression,” a stubbornly optimistic young boy yearns for—and then campaigns for—a bicycle his family can’t afford. Cantwell’s outlook is optimistic but resolutely unsentimental; his characters never pull their punches, either with each other or themselves. The collection features some lovely turns of phrase (“The air was pungent with the scent of asphodel and wild rhododendron. Early evening crickets sang them on their way. Olive trees arcaded the stairs”), but the theme of transformation is the real heart of these stories—the ways that people can change each other, frequently without intending to do so. There are also no outright villains, even when characters resort to violence, and most stories contain a steady undercurrent of winking humor. Several tales are openly nostalgic (such as “Golden Gloves,” a winsome story about a 1939 boys boxing match in East Detroit), and all are filled with believable dialogue and well-drawn, if simple, characters. The humanity of these stories lies in the belief that salvation is always possible and that there are no truly lost causes.
A collection of enjoyable stories from an author with an