Stories of tough times in working-class Massachusetts, where the sons head off to war while the grown-ups left behind confront their aging, impatient selves.
Dacey’s storytelling is rarely as domesticated as his plots suggest, befitting a young writer who’s studied under George Saunders. “Ballad” is told in a single run-on sentence by a songwriter contemplating the way his relationships have shifted as he talks to his newborn baby. In “Frieda, Years Later,” a man furtively escapes his family to reunite with a girl he had a fling with in high school, now a yoga instructor in Florida; he anticipates somebody New Age–y and sexually available but winds up with a woman who has his number. Efforts at self-improvement tend to go south quickly: the woman who appears on TV for a whole-body makeover is turned into a narcissistic villain by the show’s producers; the father of a teenage boy with mental health issues struggles to prepare him for his first date. Throughout, Dacey is skilled at giving these stories comic moods without mocking the seriousness of his characters’ anxieties. The best example, the opening “Patriots,” is an irreverent study of the mother of a dead soldier, told from the point of view of an unfriendly neighbor (“she said that my collection of wind chimes drove her nuts, and I said her collection of flags and ribbons drives me nuts”). Two follow-up stories add layers of generosity and pathos to that seriocomic atmosphere. “Incoming Mail” is told in letters from the mother, increasingly at loose ends with family chaos at home and a lack of response from overseas. And the closing “Lost Dog” is a poignant revelation of details of the son’s fate and a superb stand-alone story about displaced affection in a war zone.
A fine debut collection from a storyteller who improves as the stakes get higher.