These stories thrive on discomfort, so much so that each small kindness registers as a minor miracle.
Editor Boyle favors dark tales, but they often have strange, bright moments. In Kevin Canty's "Happy Endings," a widower's worldview expands after he finds comfort in a massage parlor. "Unsafe at Any Speed" by Laura Lee Smith offers a cowed husband, father, and employee a one-day respite from ass-kissing via a highly spontaneous crime spree. There's a jittery veteran untethered from space and time ("The Fugue" by Arna Bontemps Hemenway) and one calmly using his prosthesis to shut down a dinner party ("The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” by Denis Johnson). Victor Lodato's "Jack, July" spends a hot, haunting day with a young man in need of a meth fix. As is common with this series, the authors' notes at the end include insight from each about the inspiration and process behind his or her chosen works. Jess Walter describes "Mr. Voice," the final story and a strikingly upbeat one, as all following from a perfect first line. Its 1970s setting and protagonist—a teen girl finding stability with her unusual stepfather—are a pleasing counterpoint to the downbeat and downtrodden who sometimes overwhelm this volume. Stories of children lost, then found, ("Sh'khol" by Colum McCann and "Thunderstruck" by Elizabeth McCracken) seem like they would resolve happily, but be not fooled. In the first, joy and relief immediately turn to suspicion and then a sense of greater loss; the second finds a family so fractured by what happened it's unclear whether they'll heal in its wake. Five of the 20 stories chosen first appeared in The New Yorker, and the others share their preference for occasional inscrutability. Many also test the boundaries of "short," nearly novellas in terms of length and scope.
Confrontational and at times confounding, these are stories to get lost in, then gratefully chart a path homeward.