It used to be Pennsylvania coal country, and even now that the mining jobs have gone, many in Black’s first story collection find it hard to leave.
The narrator of "Wildcats" and his buddy R.J. are typical. The high school students waste their energy skirmishing with older guys drilling for oil. R.J. will end up a solitary woodsman, the narrator, a third-generation farm manager. His fatalistic counterpart in "It Burns" seems college-bound but disappoints his more ambitious girlfriend by hanging out with a troublemaker whose ex-miner dad is dying of cancer. Further back in time, the fact-based "Susquehanna, 1960" explores the aftermath of a flooding river and mine cave-in which killed dozens and left a community of Poles and Italians without work. Young Joe Kovalevsky has a ruined leg. An older miner, Rora, suggests they build a boat, a modest way of restoring the balance between man and nature. Rora’s fatherly concern for Joe gives the story a glow, making it the standout. Black is less successful with higher income brackets. "Leaving" is the portrait of a tenured academic who's left two women after detaching them from their previous guys and will in time dump his current girlfriend, leading him to the banal conclusion that we are all alone. In "Architecture," retiring lawyer Mark and his wife, Elizabeth, have decided to stay put in their coal-belt city because of its gentrifying downtown. The story plays with an irony. Elizabeth loves the city’s grand old structures, yet the story has no corresponding structure. In a postmodern moment, the narrator jumps in to urge the importance of elegant narrative design and then, before withdrawing, points to an unscripted dead body that contradicts his message. It’s a bit of mischief that doesn’t quite work.
Black is at his best as a social realist in a blue-collar milieu; elsewhere, the strain shows.