Families of all sorts—accidental, circumstantial, and intentional—populate 12 short stories that provide glimpses of hard luck and trouble in the rusted-out and mildewed parts of contemporary America.
Buttenwieser’s title story recounts the dysthemic details of a road trip to a second-rate attraction taken by a father and his two daughters without the company of their flagrantly faithless wife and mother. An intentional family of sorts is formed by the bar regulars in “Evidence,” which is narrated in the second person ("You always come here by yourself, and while no one quite talks directly to you, you are not left out either"). A dead-end housekeeping job in a dilapidated motel, ironically named after a famous explorer, allows the protagonist of "Nights at the Marco Polo" to observe kindness in the face of situational misery when the manager lets kids from the homeless families being housed there play in the hallways despite rules to the contrary. In "Inside the World of Twilight," a child gone missing at the zoo creates both panic and an unexpected moment of connection between an estranged father and his adult daughter. Most of Buttenwieser’s characters seem resigned to their fates—even the ones who had formed an escape plan—and there is little expectation of anything really good happening to them. Everyone is treading water. A frustrating lack of opportunity permeates virtually every environment in Buttenwieser’s world of lonely voyeurs, children of divorce, and latchkey kids. Rarely do changes in circumstance or attitude occur in the course of any of these stories, creating a flipbook of sad portraits, not family movies.
Buttenwieser’s sketches are more like pathology slides of the human condition than snapshots of happy family picnics.