Park has published nine previous books, and his range in this new one is ambitious. One story is narrated by a shop mannequin, another by an oarsman rowing the dead across what is clearly the River Styx, another by a lonely old widower who becomes involved with a single mother and her 5-year-old son. “Skype” follows an isolated former schoolteacher who lives on a remote and rather inhospitable island, mourning his absent wife and daughter, who have both moved away: “This afternoon the sea looks irritable, slowly working itself up into a brew, and it hits the harbor wall as if startled to find land’s obstruction in its way. It’s always been like that, he thinks, always the sense that nature resents the presence they have carved out for themselves and at every opportunity seeks to dislodge them.”
In “Man Overboard,” four childhood friends, now in their 40s, set off on a “lads’ weekend,” only to discover that one of them is more seriously depressed than they’d realized. How the other three respond to their mate’s despair represents a small victory in the name of old allegiances. Park is a skilled craftsman who serves up some memorable passages, yet several of the entries in this collection seem too slight, proving just how delicate and elusive the alchemy of the short story form can be.
By Mary Sojourner
217 pp. Torrey House, paper, $14.95.
The characters in Sojourner’s second collection are often down on their luck; more likely than not, they turn out to be heavy drinkers and substance abusers with a lot on their chests. They like to talk and pour endless cups of coffee. They live in trailer parks and crummy apartments and take road trips in primer-patched old Broncos and elderly Malibus. They have a knack, it must be said, for making bad choices. Downhill is their customary direction.
The author of novels, memoirs and a book of essays, Sojourner lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., and many of her stories are set in the West and Southwest. Her sense of place is by far her strongest suit, and her descriptions for the most part ring true: The “Mojave Desert burn-you-to-a-crisp sunshine,” the “saguaro rising up like guardians,” the “faint whine off the far highway and the scrawk of a raven,” the clear air of a “blue-brilliant Colorado afternoon.” If only her characters felt as real and specific as her locations. Instead, they can veer dangerously close to caricature. In “Nautiloid,” a tough-talking older woman dying of colon cancer doesn’t want anyone to make a fuss over her. In “Cyndra Won’t Get Out of the Truck,” a depressed young housewife turns a weakness for Palm Springs slot machines into a full-blown gambling addiction. Heavy on the folksy charm, the dialogue never feels quite as right as Sojourner’s deftly rendered settings. “Me? Standard getting-by getting-older single chick in a one-horse town,” one woman says, by way of introduction. (Does anybody anywhere really talk like that?)
Despite the often corny locutions, Sojourner’s stories contain moments of real feeling. The abiding theme is that mistakes will be made, losses will pile up and yet — by accident or luck or sheer determination — most of these characters will manage to endure. Those who fare the best seem to be the people who find some solace in the landscape and the great outdoors. Sometimes, as one of them points out, you’ve just got to get out of the truck.