Twelve stories, many set in New Bedford, in the tradition of Andre Dubus and Raymond Carver, illuminate the lives of working-class people with moments of rare beauty.
In “Wheatback,” a 17-yeat-old boy visiting his father in a nursing home has a moment of unexpected intimacy with a 104-year-old resident. “Fun with Mammals” begins, “Mother’s Day in the Year of the Rat and I’m riding shotgun for my brother-in-law Phil in a borrowed flatbed semi as we throttle north on Interstate 91 toward Canada, but instead of packing a firearm, I’m trying to keep a wine cork on the tip of a nine-inch hypodermic, just in case the narwhal wakes up ahead of schedule.” After a few wry twists (the whale, apparently in labor, ejects a small man in a wetsuit, a client Phil was trying to smuggle to Canada), Duval zeroes in on the moment when the narrator decides he has to take charge: “Let’s get a move on. We need to get this narwhal to the sea, and I mean now.” It’s a subtle moment, but the shift from ride-along to authority feels authentic, reminding us that morality often revolves around one individual’s small choices. A similar moral dilemma is at the heart of “Bakery,” a powerful story about a man who’s lost his business and takes a job working nights at a baking company; in confronting a sadistic bully, he finds himself forced to choose between passivity and violence. Oddly, the title story is the slightest: a slice of nightlife where two brothers-in-law, drunk on Christmas Eve, pick up three equally drunk strangers who offer them a glimpse of nudity.
Still, an impressive start for this Bakeless Prize winner (2003) with a lean, efficient style and an understanding of the brutality of life on the economic margins.