The agonies of adolescence and the moral confusions of adulthood and middle age are observed with finely honed wit in this entertaining fourth collection from the Arizona author of Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1977) and Plan B for the Middle Class (1992).
There are two brief interludes, one a wry explanation of how real life gets fictionalized, the other a teenager’s imaginary romantic personals ad: they echo each other, but their linkage is not otherwise explored. The nine fully developed stories, as varied and uneven a lot as are the contents of its three predecessors, uniformly employ a witty, knowing (usually first-person) narrative voice and a tangy colloquial style that often bursts into authentic comic aphorism (e.g., “It was a bit like being in the army: when in doubt, paint something”). A few stories fall flat: “The Clicker at Tips,” about a nowhere relationship played out in a bar whose patrons watch Monday-night football, and “Gary Garrison’s Wedding Vows,” about the love life of a woman led by her inchoate “feelings,” seem especially lame. But when Carlson creates a protagonist with an original relationship to his milieu and circumstances, he can dazzle. The title story’s rich portrayal of a conflicted sport fisherman’s experiences with his current woman and with a man formerly encountered in extreme circumstances, and thereafter unforgotten, expertly jumbles various marital, parental, and sexual “feelings” together. In “Towel Season” and “The Potato Gun,” timid, passive family men are shaken into riskier, hence more fulfilling—and threatening—behavior. And Carlson’s at his best in “Evil Eye Allen,” a dippy anti-romance about high school hormonal mischief and homespun Satanism, and especially, “The Ordinary Son,” a delightful tale of growing up among—and away from—a family of Texan geniuses, including a NASA physicist, a save-the-planet poet, and a girl who calls herself “Isotope.”
At his (frequent, though inconsistent) best, this is one of our better storytellers. It’s about time for a Ron Carlson Selected Stories.