A variety of lives hit the skids in dramatic and usually self-inflicted ways in this linked story collection.
Though billed as a novel, Petersen’s debut more closely resembles a disjointed Pulp Fiction–style narrative, hopscotching west of the Mississippi with a motley set of characters. In the opening chapter, a man is speeding through Arizona to get to his father’s wedding when he strikes a dog on the highway, and in short order he’s pursuing a fling with its owner. Cut to a story narrated by the son of a friend of the groom, recalling the perils of buying a home without a real estate agent. Cut then to a story about the angst-ridden former owner of the house and his brother, whose wife is having an affair with a reality TV star. And so on: The connections between the characters are often tenuous (though Petersen ties a bow at the end), but they’re all grown-ups who make rash, immature attempts to reboot their lives and pay the price for it. “I wanted to find a different path,” says the ill-fated home buyer, though he could be speaking for everybody populating this book. “I wanted to buck the system. That was all me.” Petersen usually delivers the stories in the first person, with narrators recalling their personal-life own goals with sardonic humor or barely contained fury. But the penultimate story, “Providence,” is a gem told in the third person, involving Eric, a deaf teenager attempting to rise above his trailer-park upbringing and sour memories of his mother’s death by delivering chemicals for meth labs throughout rural Oklahoma. Like everybody else here, he’s a victim of his own bad decisions, but Petersen so carefully and compassionately arrays the forces in his life (dead mom, remorseful dad, a conspicuous disability) that every easy assumption gets repelled.
An engaging set of stories of broken lives, jagged in structure but smooth in the telling.