Patrick Dacey might be an anomaly. For a man who didn’t start writing until his early 20’s (and says he wasn’t reading books routinely until the same age), he has produced an empathetic and strikingly original debut short story collection, We’ve Already Gone This Far.

The collection is smartly bookended by war: the opening story “Patriots” follows war from the perspective of the next-door neighbor of a grieving mother who lost her son in combat overseas. “Then one day, when I saw Donna driving off in her stupid Subaru, I went right across the street and took one of the flags out of the ground and buried it in my backyard,” Dacey writes. The last story, “Lost Dog,” reveals the details of Donna’s son’s fate. “The air is full of dust. We’re not destroyers, we go through what’s been destroyed. I see a Haji’s arm stuck like a small flag in the sand, the first three fingers blown off. There’s an infantry watch around his wrist, still ticking,” he writes. I didn’t catch this detail until Dacey pointed it out to me; this clever organization to the collection lends a sense of cohesion to the fictional town ofDacey jacket Wequaquet, where Dacey sets his stories.  

In fact, the collection emerges from “Patriots.” Dacey struggled with his writing coming out of Syracuse’s MFA program. He felt the need to push material out there and it just wasn’t authentic. He wrote three terrible novels and about 20 terrible short stories. “The only authentic thing I did was about five pages of that first story [“Patriots”] and so I went back to it and as I was reading it, I found that…even though it’s just about two people, it reads as all of these different people in this one place,” Dacey says. The town, persona, and presence of Wequaquet then began to manifest themselves. Wequaquet is “the name of the lake near where I grew up, but it’s also where we spread my mother’s ashes so it has a spiritual connection,” he says.

Dacey says he is more comfortable with short stories, even though he has already completed a forthcoming novel and is working on another one. “I believe it makes more sense the way that we actually tell each other stories; they’re short and they’re compact and they’re quick and that’s how we relate to each other.”

As a student, mentee, and friend of George Saunders, Dacey makes it clear that just because you know a highly successful author, you’re not necessarily going to be one right off the bat. All the people Saunders recommended that Dacey send his initial manuscript to rejected it. The discipline, honesty, and kindness Saunders bestowed on Dacey are what influenced him the most. “More than anything, and I think it’s something he [Saunders] probably learned from Tobias Wolff, because I’ve heard him say it before, you just got to get in the chair and do it,” Dacey explains.

Evan Rodriguez is a writer living in Texas.