One Tacoma bar and the dozen or so people who were there on St. Patrick's Day 1968 inspire this linked set of seriocomic stories that hopscotches across a half-century.
This collection from Wiley (Bob Stevenson, 2016, etc.) emphasizes unlikely transformations over time—and, as the title suggests, the role of place in those transformations. And though Wiley juggles plenty of characters, he has a light touch that's fitting for a book rooted in the free-wheeling '60s in a small Northwest city. Establishing a dramatis personae in the opening story, "Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die," his remaining 13 tales mostly address the ensuing years, with some recurring characters. Philosophy professor Earl loses his grip on his lover, Mary, who’s more interested in the Tacoma house where The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was filmed. Andy, a lawyer, can’t shake his obsession with a former student, serial killer Ted Bundy, to the point of buying his home. Mary works at the car dealership run by Lars, who in 1977 watched his marriage collapse and relationship with his father crater; 32 years later he falls for his father’s Eritrean caretaker. And though Mary was the bartender everyone lusted over back in the day, by 2011 she’s single and suffering through an eHarmony date. Though there’s little in the way of an arc, there’s a strong feeling of a shared generational struggle, and Wiley is at his best when playing up his cohort’s peculiarities. Teacher Ralph visits the home of a former student, whose “life-size and perfect likeness” of her late father sits on the back deck; a vibrator becomes a prop for a French farce of a double date. Wiley’s characters occasionally utter only-in-literary-fiction lines (“Who is the me that I want Earl to see if the me he sees isn’t me?” Mary laments). But mostly he delivers a realistic sense of things not turning out as planned.
A modest but quirky collection defined by forbearance amid life’s left turns.