An uneven though very intriguing first collection by the Texas-born (now Arizonan) author of such vivid in-your-face fiction as Whompyjawed (1999) and Tideland (2000).
The eight longish tales here seem to have been written before Cullin found the edgy, bluesy voice that makes his novels so much fun to read. “History is Dead,” for example, relates the grim experiences of a young Cambodian woman separated from her family and working in a Cambodian forced-labor camp. “Wormwood” chronicles a Russian teenager’s delayed reaction to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and the title story describes a black American Vietnam vet’s return with his racially mixed family to the country, long after the war. These stories, which feel dutiful and impersonal, are far less affecting than “Voice of the Sun,” a subtly constructed and very moving story about the complexities of filial love, family obligation, and sexual identity that define the relationship between two adult Japanese-American brothers. Pieces that appear closer to Cullin’s real turf include “Five Women in No Particular order,” a comic-grotesque tale of tornadoes, sexual irregularity, and strained female friendships, and “Viv’s Biding,” a finely detailed but unfortunately slack portrayal of a nonagenarian hanging feistily on, in a rundown retirement home. “Sifting Through” offers a probable earlier version of Asian-American adolescent Takashi (a pivotal character in Cullin’s recent novel The Cosmology of Bing, 2000 here shown as a “hero” who nevertheless feels unnoticed by and alienated from his peers. The most interesting story, “Totem,” details the misadventures of an Alaskan Native American kid who’s misled into criminal violence by the unstable best friend whom he secretly admires (and probably loves). The narrative meanders, and its possibilities remain largely undeveloped, but it’s filled with fresh, lively detail.
A rough-edged building block in the career of a talented writer who’s getting better with every book. Cullin admirers won’t want to miss it.