Debut collection of nine dispassionate short stories from a 2004 National Magazine Award finalist in fiction.
In “A Cryptograph,” Sharon searches for her missing son, wandering the city with her only clue: a paint-dusted stencil in the shape of a tank. One of Sharon’s elementary-school students, Eaton Slavin, remembers seeing the image painted on a telephone pole and offers to take Sharon there. At the site, Sharon paints a message for her son; when stopped by the police, she lets them believe that Eaton is responsible and watches silently as he is taken away. “1987, The Races” recounts an unusual joint-custody afternoon. After seeing his gambler father humiliated at the track, an 11-year-old boy decides to desert dad and telephones his mother to come pick him up. In the title story (first published in the Atlantic), Bobby, a sewer-treatment employee, reunites with his former high-school football coach in a hare-brained scheme to kidnap the coach’s daughter from the world of pornography. Once they arrive at her Los Angeles home, Bobby discovers he doesn’t know the full extent of the father and daughter’s past. The best of the lot is the almost-novella “Nepal.” A glazier named Thomas, hired to finish a castle in southern Missouri in 1922, is restoring the greenhouse when he meets Carmen, English niece of the wealthy owners. She was sent to Missouri to recover from the death of her fiancé, killed in the war, and Thomas bears more than a passing resemblance to the dead man. While Carmen’s obsession with him lands Thomas a prestigious stained-glass assignment, it also culminates in a near-tragedy.
As stand-alone stories, they mostly work, but in the context of a collection, the author’s lack of empathy for his characters becomes off-putting.