"Bridge in the Rain" by Bianca Lakoseljac

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I made this choice from my good friends at NetGalley, not realizing it was a series of short pieces. However, the collection contains well over its share of striking and memorable characters in the throes of epochal moments. Such is the stuff of fine short fiction.

Ms. Lakoseljac presents in the title piece a man who in the present day lets his jealousy of the relationship between his wife and Vincent van Gogh lead to cruel negligence and disastrous – life and death – consequences. “The Perfect Woman” follows the marriage-ruining self-absorption of a woman who learns through fantasy and brinksmanship that she may not measure up to the perfections of an inflatable doll. Is the doll real? The efficacy of this question leaves us in no doubt of the author’s haunting strength. “Years of Silence” chronicles the sad and, again, self-absorbed, saga of two friends who have been out of touch for years. The stirring and captivating use of the long letter from long ago ranks as one of the finest effects in this collection. In “Heads or Tails” Ms. Lakoseljac reduces the stay-married-or-not issue to the flip of a coin. Very nearly.

Just as certain themes and personality traits dominate the majority of these pieces, I think it no mistake that the author leads off and finishes with uplifting, hopeful stories, and even presents a foreword that establishes the recurring talisman: a park bench in Toronto. We read through a confusing, unsettling fairy tale after the foreword, and it reinforces the writer’s mission, although for me, it isn’t needed. It seems a true, if charming, piece of self-absorption for the author herself. However, “Night Walk” portrays a true-feeling change of heart in a young woman who opts to stay with a position she loves in a children’s library, rather than take the grand opportunity in an adults-only office in another city.

It’s been some years since I devoted any energy to short fiction. These pieces, though, have refreshed me in this area; they are consistently excellent. We witness the doubting, troubled internal dialogues of people at crossroads or crises. Seldom do characters behave in any sympathetic way, and if we’re lucky, we might get a hint of some trouble that led the character to do what he or she does. For those who enjoy short stories, these belong in the very first rank. Trust me.

I was a little befuddled as to how to rate these pieces. On the whole there is somewhat of a sameness to the characters, but individually, the stories shine. They're clear, direct pieces, and very enjoyable.

"The Widower's Tale" by Julia Glass

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All hail the retired, erudite, put-upon, devoted Percival Darling, hero of Julia Glass’s “The Widower’s Tale.” He endures the frankness, foibles, and utter foolishness foisted upon him by friends and family. Ms. Glass presents us a cornucopia of au courant issues through this exceptional character’s thoughts and statements: homophobia, gentrification, immigration reform, environmental awareness, even the vicissitudes of health care. I noticed all the issues and how current they were, but given the engrossing cast of characters here, the extravagant plot, and the thoroughly engaging prose, I didn’t mind. More precisely, I enjoyed this confection thoroughly.

Percy Darling has lived in the same ancient house in a leafy Boston suburb for nearly five decades. Only a small fraction of that time was he blessed by the presence of his beloved wife Poppy, who he loses when his two daughters are in the eighth and ninth grades. Alone, Percy raises his daughters, pursues to retirement his career at Harvard’s Widener Library, and goes his own way in terms of interacting with the world. In a very beautiful sustained feat of realistic and sympathetic character-drawing, Percy flaunts his erudition and his wit, and doesn’t pay much attention to people’s reaction. His progress through the thicket of this plot molds him into someone a little more guarded in his speech. He needs the reformation, but it doesn’t stop him from striving to help his loved ones.

The story opens with the refurbishing of the barn behind Percy’s home and its conversion to a nursery school for the children of the village’s elite. For Percy, this is a very painful process and it presages changes even more painful. We meet teachers and administrators, Percy’s grandson who attends Harvard, his daughter the prominent oncologist, his other, far-less-organized daughter, and a careless and charismatic ecoterrorist whose prankish tricks lead to the very surprising denouement. Percy starts to date again, at age 70, but this sweet excitement turns grim as events Percy couldn’t predict nor particularly deserve crash into his retired life. The grandson, Percy’s closest friend in the world, becomes unwittingly entangled in criminal acts, and his “problem” daughter faces yet another crisis and yet another career change. Ms. Glass has plotted the novel tightly, and we see the elegance of the intricate interactions.

Through all this, Ms. Glass devotes her considerable skill to drawing us into Percy’s circle, and we wind up wanting what’s best for him. She renders certain chapters in Percy’s first person, making this book truly his tale. I was non-plussed by the inclusion of quite so many of today’s hot issues; they balance well with the plot and characters, but I would have wished for a more subservient role. I think political issues should always rank below characterization, structure, and theme, as they do in Ms. Glass’s previous efforts which I have read (“Three Junes” and “The Whole World Over”). But that’s just me. Judge accordingly for your own taste.

I would be very hard-pressed to name an author publishing today who produces more realistic, or simultaneously, more sympathetic, characters. In itself, that is quite an unlikely achievement. And it says all you need to know about Julia Glass. While I may not rank this as her best work, I will remember it, and appreciate having spent time with it.

"To Account for Murder" by William C. Whitbeck

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I read where “To Account for Murder” was an on-again, off-again labor for William C. Whitbeck over a couple of decades. The result, Mr. Whitbeck’s debut work of fiction, stands as a combination historical novel, thriller, and political exposé. Mr. Whitbeck, himself a high-ranking Michigan appellate judge and close confidant to more than one Michigan governor, knows whereof he speaks. His research into the corrupt legal and political environment of Detroit and Lansing before and after World War II must have been exhaustive, given the detail here.

“To Account for Murder” delves into the sordid and appalling particulars of the political corruption charges and counter-charges of the time – this forms the bulk of the book – and wraps a personal-history yarn around it for presentation’s sake. Perhaps he should have played the legal procedure card less, and the character-development card more. As I started this, the conscienceless, ruthless ambition on all sides rings true (I have some first-hand experience in the political arena), but as the machinations and the murders mount up, I grew numb to it. Mr. Whitbeck’s compulsion to get it all down on paper costs his plot and his characters a measure of reality, and the cardboard-cutout aspect of his characters takes over. Likewise, I find legal procedures fairly easy to follow in fiction, but the book portrays so many in-court and ex parte moves, motions, and counter-motions, ranging from simple persuasion to murder and blackmail, that they lose their immediacy and generate little tension.

The author does manage one nuanced character: the first-person narrator Charlie Cahill, who has little trouble ignoring his conscience – at least he has one to ignore. He also has a haunting personal history, in which he relives the terror of the D-Day invasion. In an interesting device, our narrator confesses to the reader that he has killed the infamous state Senator, and needs to direct the investigation away from himself and the murder victim’s wife, whom he loves. This, however, may only be a trick played on the reader, but that would hardly be fair, would it, given the mileage other characters make from it throughout the narrative.

I do appreciate the author's inclusion of a pithy thematic statement, put in the mouth of the central character, the prosecutor who would be governor: on leaving a saloon packed with legislators and lobbyists, he says, "You could empty a 12-guage in there and not harm an honest man." The reader will begin to wonder how Michigan’s government ever made it through the period, so pervasive is the corruption on display here.

"Bound" by Antonya Nelson

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Author Antonya Nelson populates her latest, “Bound,” with frail human beings who exhibit their weaknesses for the reader, and leave us with the question, how does one rise above temptation? However, the specific question Ms. Nelson poses at the novel’s end, where she directs our attention to the similarities between a serial adulterer and a serial murderer, strikes at the true heart of the issues.

This novel consists of the stories of a handful of Midwestern American women, known to each other, who come from a variety of backgrounds. Misty Mueller, killed in a car accident early on, was high school best friends with Catherine Harding. These two could not have come from more diverse backgrounds: Misty’s home is full of sullen male relatives who keep engine blocks on the kitchen table; Catherine’s mother has achieved prominence as a strong-willed no-nonsense professor at the University. Misty surprises: she's the one who becomes a mother, and the plot revolves around the eventual unification of Catherine with Misty’s orphaned daughter, Catherine’s namesake, called Cattie. Catherine is also Oliver’s third wife. He, pushing 70, is a generation older than Catherine, and has retrogressed to a still-younger generation, having fallen in love with the Sweetheart. Oliver provides the full force of the conflict here. An inveterate philanderer, always "trading up" from young to younger. Cattie’s arrival signals an end to these episodes, he seems to realize, and he finds by story’s end he has more in common with his wife’s mother than with any other woman in the book.

Ms. Nelson does a decent job of balancing the bad (Oliver) and ghastly (the serial killer occupying the news in the background) men, with the nobler, put-upon women in her story. She does this by portraying the women as shrieking harridans, or vapid nobodies, or sullen, rebellious 30-somethings who have failed to emerge emotionally from high school. Cattie's arrival at Catherine's and Oliver's home, brings him up finally, to a point where he realizes his game is up. This next-generation distillation of Catherine and Misty triggers a new and promising comprehension in our reprehensible Oliver.

At the point of wrapping things up, the author sets up a rather heavy-handed comparison: in the background, a serial killer binds, tortures, and murders a series of victims. Oliver, of all people, sees how his own failure to resist his urges corresponds at some level to the murderer’s dark impulses. I wanted to be careful comparing these two, because I wanted to be fair to Ms. Nelson’s intent. I believe finally, that the author set up the serial killer as a shadow figure, to give Oliver's antics a deep, sinister accent. And if we pay attention to Oliver's own cogitations, where he finally realizes that evil and self-absorbed impulses can indded be resisted, then the damage he inflicted - two ruined marriages and a third one threatened - can be viewed in better perspective. Serial adultery is like serial killing in attitude but not degree.
It did at length occur to me: among other things, the “Bound” of the title clearly indicates the nature of women’s relationships with men. Ms. Nelson, formidable, all-seeing, shows us our weaknesses in the unblinking light of her highly professional, yet distinctive, prose. There may be writers out there exhibiting characters as real as these, but none are any more real, or more honestly portrayed.