A workmanlike collection (his fifth, after Borrowed Hearts, 1999) from DeMarinis, author of eight novels.
The volume has three sections, the first and strongest consisting of seven takes on one man. In 1962, Moss is in college on the GI bill, trying to make his depressed wife Corliss happy and waiting for work with a Seattle defense contractor. When he and two buddies break into the physics lab at night to finish an experiment, they’re radiated by high-velocity neutrons from an accelerator. Years later, Moss concludes that “Sometimes the worst doesn’t happen.” In “The Bear Itself,” Moss and Astrid, his buddy Roddy’s wife, save another friend from drowning. Roddy screams at Astrid, “Will you please put on some clothes, you goddamned whore!” With typical DeMarinis pithiness, Moss observes, “If a handful of words can end a marriage, Roddy had found them.” “The Missile Gypsies” finds Moss, Corliss, and their baby son, Teller, transferred to North Dakota, where Moss collects data on the Minuteman missiles and betrays Corliss. In “Structure,” Moss is desperate because Corliss has left him and he fears he has prostate cancer. He has another affair and loses his job. “Freaks” is the darkest, most conclusive story. Just as the now-13-year-old Teller is called a “freak” by cheerleaders, Moss develops weird symptoms (double vision, impotence, lactating breasts). He has successful brain surgery, recovers, reconnects with his son. Less satisfying as a unit, the second section offers nine stories about men who are dead either through electrocution (“Handyman”), heart attack “atop the bimbo” (“The Life and Times of a Forty-nine-Pound Man”), a vicious animal on the desert (“Bête Noire”), the repercussions of going wild on an airplane (“Desperado”), or from beating a woman to death (“The Horse Dealer’s Lovers”). The last section—four rough-hewn coming-of-agers set in the ’40s and ’50s—could as well have been left out.
And uneven and mismatched gathering. The best here remind us of the author’s crisp mastery of the form.