People trapped in a bleak reality cross the line into madness, murder, magic and even hope in these knotty, engrossing stories.
Verola’s bedraggled characters, many of them inhabitants of his gray, cold hometown of Pittsburgh, are losers with dead-end careers, fizzled marriages and a lifetime of regrets who get jolted from their rut by chance, fate or a misguided longing for second chances. The catharsis is constructive for the hero of “LiveDoll,” a friendless librarian who goes to a sex-doll convention and gets roped into a crime plot that reawakens his humanity, as well as for the schizophrenic heroine of the title story, who resolves to silence her inner voice of a plummy English toff who is forever pestering her to kill herself. Things get a bit hairier for the fading Hollywood comic in “Baby Mama,” who takes desperate measures to thwart a gold-digger who’s dunning him for child support, and downright harrowing for the workaholic coroner in “Hello/Goodbye” when she confronts the vengeful ghost of a psychic. Sometimes characters find the universe conspiring against them, a predicament faced in “Three Sides of Life and Death” by a hungry snake who has a frog snatched from his jaws by an unlikely deity; but for the hero of “The Guru Goes to Work,” an aspiring visionary forced to take a job as a shoe-repair technician, the cosmos is a font of unlooked-for grace. These yarns draw you in with vivid, quirky characters, Twilight Zone scenarios, noirish atmosphere and O’Henry twists. Verola’s prose style, pitched halfway between the mundane and the sublime—“I began to feel a peace sitting in the driver’s seat, deeper than any peace I’ve ever had, even more relaxed than in my burgundy leather recliner at home, in which I often fall asleep”—nicely complements his keen narrative chops. The result is bravura storytelling in which a genuine sympathy for the human predicament gleams through the black humor.
A beguiling collection of well-wrought tales by a writer with talent to burn.