In this debut collection of short stories, Olinger uses wit and warmth to weave a picture of rural life that is both charming and moving.
This collection loosely follows the life of a family on Washington state’s Key Peninsula, an “accidentally unseparated island nation” in Puget Sound. Much like the roads on the peninsula, the stories meander, but all are linked. In the titular tale, a determined woodpecker drives a family to the brink of insanity and back again; in others, a self-styled anarchist and “survivalist logger” leaves anti-establishment poems around the peninsula, and two men take a midnight boat ride to scrape seaweed off an ancient rock carving partially submerged in the ocean. Children catch insects and are corralled into T-ball practice, and they often require tutoring. Olinger’s wry sense of humor is used to great effect; in “Into the Brainforest,” for instance, he writes: “The first time I tried to find an elementary school on the Key Peninsula, as an eager volunteer tutor, I was given directions that led me to a fish hatchery. It was an easy mistake.” Even in the more humorous stories, however, no one is reduced to a caricature. The stories are brief but populated with memorable sights, smells and people, from nature-worshipping gardeners to enigmatic fishermen and their slippery salmon. The Key Peninsula is painted so evocatively that is almost a character itself—wet, dirty and beautiful in its solitude. Olinger draws from his life on the peninsula to create a collection that is humorous and, at times, heartbreaking, particularly when it takes a darker turn and contemplates the struggles in a marriage after the death of a family member. His spare style, complemented by black-and-white drawings from artist Tweed Meyer, is lovely to read, and although a few of the too-short stories may leave readers wanting more, the collection as a whole is deeply satisfying.
A delightful, low-key yet memorable collection.