Ten debut stories that draw most of their inspiration from the author’s background in engineering and then a stint working in product development for the Ford Motor Company.
“But when he mentioned engineering, his old man was incredulous. He said in a mock-gentle tone, ‘But, Duke, how can you be an engineer when you’re always breaking things?’ ” Engineering becomes the controlling metaphor here: if characters work together or fail to do so, it’s usually connected to the machines around them and to the thinking and history that brought them into being. The title story is a quasi-historical account of the lighting of Luna Park and the subsequent electrocution of an elephant named Topsy, while in “What They Teach you in Engineering School,” the progress of engineering technology measures the educational distance between a father and son even as they both realize, after a sudden trauma, that they’re all either of them has. The final piece (“Aeronautics”) is another history of early aeronauts, the warriors who made war three-dimensional, and made balloons weapons as surely as men or muskets are weapons. “Telescope” is a single sentence short-short that plays with the engineering of sentences; and when a prototype SUV breaks down in backwater Michigan (“The Prototype”), it’s a chance for a local mechanic to fool its fish-out-of-water engineers and possibly engineer for himself a lost love. While Arvin’s prose often centers on the inner workings of things on the near-mechanical level (“Instead he sat frozen and hyperaware of himself—of the noise of his breath, the twitch of his toes against his shoes, the clutch of the muscles in his chest”), the emotions are always real, enlivened by the context that gives them life and shape. One wonders why only one of these stories has been published before, and what’s likely to happen when this author shifts to a longer form that will allow his vision the breadth it really needs to develop and grow.
Accomplished and promising.