A series of interconnected short stories centers on one community and many of its people.
Wachtel’s (The Music Makers, 2014, etc.) collection of 20 tales focuses on seemingly simple, ordinary people, looking inside their lives to discover quick moments of doubt, quiet crises, and intricate webs of self-deception. These are the residents of a New Jersey community much like any other, and the prism through which Wachtel views many of their lives is the Jewish American experience of synagogue and shul, of rabbis and holy days. In “Stealing Time,” young Lizzie Kempner’s life is derailed by the discovery of her shoplifting habit; in “A Woman of Valor,” dutiful, thwarted Mrs. Tinsel endures the sudden, unexpected death of her indifferent husband; in “Sleeping on Glaciers,” Rabbi Jake Goodman quietly contends not only with his son’s autism, but also with persistent hints of his own deteriorating health; in “JoJo’s Fear,” a family confronts a tragedy symbolized by the death of the family dog; and in “Done,” Simon Waltrip, a retired hardware store owner, calmly, methodically contemplates his own suicide. In all these stories and more, Wachtel follows the same cast—characters only glimpsed in one tale go on to star in another—through the ostensibly mundane concerns of their lives.
The writing throughout is more workmanlike than showy and in need of a strong editor: typos, odd omissions, and awkward sentences occur frequently (for example, “boxer shirts”; “articles on both the Kyoto, Copenhagen, and Paris world accords”). Wachtel sometimes displays a flair for description (In “Fog,” she writes: “It was one of those pink spring days when the sky opened wide to a million possibilities”). And her dialogue invests her characters with a vitality that’s often striking, including in “Sleeping on Glaciers,” in which a man doubts his faith (“ ‘When life ends, no matter the circumstances,’ he stopped, gulping air, ‘it ends. To say otherwise provides hope, but a false hope. To say otherwise is just plain—what’s the word? Dishonest’ ”). But for the most part, the prose here is a means for telling stories rather than an end in itself—efficient rather than dazzling. When readers encounter Lizzie’s thoughts, for instance, they hear them unadorned: “The time would come that she would be revealed for what she truly was—a nobody. A fake.” When Wachtel wants to convey the simple fidelity of a rabbi, she writes: “It was faith that had buoyed the life of Jake Goodman for as long as he could remember.” Readers watch as Waltrip, grieving for his wife and grappling with the failure of his business, emotionlessly plots the actual mechanics of his suicide. The tactic of braiding recurring characters into various tales works successfully here; it creates a tapestry feeling that only strengthens on rereading and that highlights the book’s subtle reminders that compelling stories lurk behind even the most straightforward outward appearances. In this way, “Done” may be the volume’s best offering—Waltrip’s experience of first planning his suicide and then rethinking it is entirely private, completely unseen by the other people in his community.
A plainspoken and ultimately involving collection of tales laying bare the complexities underneath normal suburban life.