Plainspoken, sharply observed collection from O. Henry Award–winner Averill (The Slow Air of Ewan Macpherson, 2003, etc.), first in a new series focused on the nation’s heartland.
A dozen stories explore the unexpected moments, surprises, shocks and setbacks of daily life in Kansas, a place where “late summer has its own rhythm of days, as dawn moves more slowly into the sky, as corn swells and stiffens in the fields.” The author writes of couples like Harry and Mavis, who while expecting their first child observe a naked man running with a herd of deer that visits their land some mornings. The sense of wonder this creates eases Harry’s transformation to fatherhood in some mysterious way. “Topeka Underground” is a midcentury fable about the artist’s place in a conforming society. A white-bearded man and his tiny wife live in the basement of an unfinished house in a new suburban development. Despite his father’s warnings to stay away, a young boy who lives nearby is drawn to the older couple by their unkempt lawn and eccentric habits. Once he discovers the treasures they’ve created, he realizes how extraordinary they are. “The Onion and I,” another father-son tale, compares the earthiness of growing onions to the aridity of cyberspace. Some of these pieces are brief: “A Story as Preface: Running Blind” takes only a page to show a runner teaching a blind friend, who soon outstrips him; and “The Summer Grandma Was Supposed to Die” is almost as spare, although this account of a young boy being bitten by a rattlesnake is marred by an unnecessary last sentence. The most fully realized story, “During the Twelfth Summer of Elmer D. Peterson,” takes up many of Averill’s characteristic elements—a solitary young boy, a rule-setting father, a grandfatherly figure who fosters rebellion, and a powerful natural setting—and polishes them to a fine point.
At its best, this creates a landscape at once realistic and fantastic, inhabited by characters whose eccentricities make them fully human.