High entertainment value distinguishes many of the 35 stories here, all distilled from Arizona writer Carlson’s first three collections (The Hotel Eden, 1997, etc.).
A genial prefatory essay “Friends of My Youth” neatly introduces a writer who’s typically inventive, funny, and—rather too often—gimmicky. His narrators parade their eccentricities like designer duds, while beneath such flamboyance fears of marriages collapsing (“Half Life,” “The Governor’s Ball”) and children in peril (“Status Quo,” “Milk”) insistently surface. Several, however, vividly dramatize familial harmony (“Life Before Science,” “The H Street Sledding Record”). Tricky premises (“Zanduce at Second,” “On the U.S.S. Fortitude”) resemble T.C. Boyle’s, but their development lacks that contemporary master’s narrative fullness. Elsewhere, Carlson digs deep, finding the embattled humanity that confuses and ennobles such memorable characters as a grieving father tracing his late son’s last days in Alaska (“Blazo”), a failed veterinarian-nature writer who finds strength in family and memory (“Plan B for the Middle Class”), and a college student whose summer job delivering “Oxygen” to medical patients saddens him, and makes a man of him.
Though Carlson often nods, his best tales will endure, and shouldn’t be missed.