A strong debut collection about family disasters and betrayals explores ordinary dramas extraordinarily.
Forced change—death and divorce—descend on these characters who are all caught in a kind of purgatory between happiness and failure, unsure which way to turn and often acting out criminally as a result. In “Nostalgia,” a man watches his wife and her lover move while contemplating his own arrest for breaking into O. Henry’s house. In “New Years,” a woman must confront her husband’s literal purgatory—a cracked head and hospital stay from a fall in the snow on New Year’s Eve—while confronting as well his younger girlfriend. Nature and instinct intrude throughout, our sedated civilization set beside a kind of emotional wilderness that threatens in the form of weather, vandals, and random evil thoughts. In “Riverfest,” nature becomes real in the form of water and navigating on it—or, rather, failing to, as a man discovers his own capacity for violence, thanks to another forced ending in his life. Blackwood, coordinator of the Writing Center at the University of Texas (Austin), is capable of sly, sudden poignancy—you can feel him learning and growing with sketches like “One of Us Is Hidden Away,” a convincing portrait of a young pregnant woman alone in her dilemma. The title story may owe its voice and distance to Jeffrey Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides, but these nine tales just as often recall Margaret Atwood or Michael Martone. Unique, though, is the detailing of ordinary crisis, enlivened by a delayed, drawn-out feel. Real time is revealed to be unrevealing, and characters linger like ghosts, resisting the change they will ultimately fail to avoid. Several stories about the same set of characters and events suggest that this writer has his eye on the bigger picture.
Sad families, haunted by the familiar, creep inside you and linger there. A newcomer to follow.