A collection chock-full of breakups and breakdowns—just about everybody here is in the midst of a downward spiral or unwittingly beginning one.
But that’s not to say that these latest stories by Parker (If You Want Me to Stay, 2005, etc.) are all downers. Though many of the men he writes about (and they are mostly men) have slipped into alcohol, drugs or just garden-variety dissolution, his prose is efficient and Carver-esque, with little moral posturing. And he has a sense of humor: One story, framed as a term paper by a mediocre college student, devolves from an earnest attempt to parse the meaning of a novelty hit into a rant about a split with a boyfriend to a lecture about the professor’s own prejudices; its wild discursiveness gives the story both depth and a comic lift. The best are empathetic but clearheaded portraits of folks who’ve hit the skids: The narrator of “The Right to Remain” is well aware of how drinking has wrecked his relationships but can’t bring himself to stop stalking his ex, and the narrator of “What Happens Next” is constantly shadowed by the memory of how his grandmother died on his watch when he was a reckless teen. And the finest piece in the collection, “Go Ugly Early,” neatly captures two decades of domestic worry and regret in a mere 20 pages—if the narrator had only had one or two fewer drinks, he wonders, would he have wound up with the right woman instead of the one he married? Parker knows his characters deeply, has his style down and isn’t budging from his chosen theme, so any flaws here are mainly matters of execution. A story in which a reconciling couple go gem-mining is almost hackneyed in plot and setting, and “Everything Was Paid For” is an overlong and unconvincing tale of a crank addict’s increasing confusion about his—and his girlfriend’s—loyalties.
Overall: solid, carefully composed glimpses into domestic dysfunction.