This first collection of 15 stories, drawn from Parks’s entire career, is both informed and cramped by the subject which gave one of his most vivid novels its title: adultery.
That’s also the subject implicit in the title of the opening story, in which two married men talk about their very different extramarital affairs: sobersided Michael’s guilty relationship with a decent younger woman and amoral George’s vainglorious carousing with a mistress who (according to George) is an erotic virtuoso. Meeting in pubs following their weekly squash games, Michael and George exchange stories, confess and boast and embroider, until their unequal odd-couple friendship gradually shifts, revealing “stories” each wishes, finally, not to hear. It’s an intriguing, if not terribly original, story—particularly when compared with several embarrassingly slight treatments of similar material, notably a story concerning the shared apartment rented by two male friends for their separate assignations (“The Room”) and a surprisingly hollow account of a naïve wife’s refusal to draw the obvious conclusion from overwhelming evidence of her husband’s faithlessness (“Something Odd”). One assumes these two are among Parks’s earliest, but none are dated. A pair of stories stands out. The first is the tale of a work-weary canoeist who seeks challenge and danger by navigating the tricky waters beneath a bridge where illegal immigrants have made their home (“In Defiance of Club Rules”)—it’s an ingenious variation on the theme of Parks’s most recent novel, Rapids, and a deft contrast between contrived thrill-seeking and lives lived in genuine peril. The second, even better, story is “Lebensraum,” in which a family gathering leaves the members sealed protectively—and resentfully—within their passive solitude and egoism. In scarcely 35 pages, it’s a taut, blistering novella: further proof that when Parks moves beyond the shorter form, his work soars.
This catch-all volume is clever and readable throughout, but nowhere near the best this writer can do.