Nineteen dark debut stories, set mostly in Florida.
Drugs and guys are always available to the young women here, but somehow they’re not enough. Take Frankie in “Singing in the Free World.” She’s doing time for selling coke to an undercover cop when she realizes that “the big hole in my life I had kept stuffed with drugs and men” was once occupied by her mother. At least she had a loving parent, unlike the protagonist of “Like Someone in a Coma.” Liz, who had to be rescued from her crazy alcoholic mom, is now a 19-year-old hooker on heroin in Miami with nothing inside her but “empty space.” Her gentle boyfriend Tommy has just stolen all her money; that’s what junkies do. Betrayal is a central theme in this collection of short, sharp jabs. Love as a disease is another core concept, most chillingly in “Giving up the Guilt.” Here, Frances meets Roy in a drug program. It’s a fatal attraction. After urging him to rob a liquor store, Frances drives off in the getaway car; Roy is killed by the cops. A stable marriage doesn’t necessarily offer protection for these haunted characters. “Inside Out” depicts Barbie chafing at her own faithfulness. But after she cheats on her man with an old flame, she feels a “vast emptiness.” In the volume’s bittersweet standout piece, “The Bargain,” a cruel backwoods mother agrees to swap her daughter for a dog. The moment is primitive and unforgettable. The downside here is a certain sameness to the grimness. True, a few stories are upbeat. Unconditional love for their little ones flows freely from the grandfather in “Dancing for Poppa” and the father in “The Deep End of the Blue Sky.” Yet they do little to dislodge the sense of overall, ingrained pessimism.
Once again, novelist MacEnulty (Sweet Fire, 2003) knows how to get your attention, and she’s a natural writer. More of her occasional humor, however, would be welcome.