Trouble (Stories), Patrick Somerville, Vintage Contemporaries, 2006
Literary-minded men, go immediately to your man-caves, get in your comfy leather man-chairs, with your man-beverages of choice (preferably a decent upper-Mid-Western micro-brew, may I recommend something from Wisconsin's New Glarus Brewing Company?), and go read Patrick Somerville's very smart, funny and poignant stories.
Readers, I am teasing a little - women will enjoy these stories, too (I absolutely loved them) - but they are not really about us. The stories in this collection reflect boy- and manhood at adolescence, striving young adulthood, middle age and older; their characters are falling in love, struggling with the meaning of success and failure, coping with changes in their growing or aging bodies, and just contemplating the meaning of it all.
In the opening story (and one of my favorites) "Puberty", Brandon is an awkward young teen, small for his age, struggling to fit in at school, spending most of his time lost in video games. He's secretly been taking special vitamins to try to accelerate things a bit, but they aren't working. His father Ralph worries, but he finds it hard to connect with his son. A dramatic basement flood, a severe basketball injury, and a hilarious discovery clear the air between Brandon and his dad, and give Brandon the confidence to embrace adolescence. I laughed right out loud several times during this humorous and touching story, provoking a lot of unanswerable questions from young children.
"The Future, the Future, the Future," another favorite, is a wonderful story about an ambitious young man in New York City (just post 9/11) who has it all planned out - school, career, wife, kids, grandkids even - until life doesn't exactly comply. One of the "glitches" is a beautiful classmate whom Dan admires from afar, and represents the road not taken. I loved this passage:
Without taking her eyes from the water, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a closed fist. Her arm moved back like a pendulum, straight at the elbow. It was an underhand throw, and Dan watched, smiling, amazed at the grace of it all, as the change spread out from its tightly packed beginnings in her palm and glistened in the air on its way to the water. Each coin made a little splash... That was nice, he thought...He looked back at The Plaza, then at the fountain, searching his pockets for some change. He felt better. He found one dime. Instead of tossing it or skipping it, he put it in his mouth and swallowed it.
I also loved the moving "The Cold War", in which an older professor's wife has died, leaving him alone and bereft. He takes up with an attractive young woman, or rather, she takes up with him. For a while this is a magical existence, but he is troubled by the dissonance of his life before and after. Rebelling against age and sadness, he gets drunk, steals a Russian hat and a sled, and takes a magnficent ride, eventually collapsing at his wife's old workplace. The thrill turns to disgrace and humiliation as he is found and apprehended, but he returns home to try to put what exists of his family back together.
You may recall that I read and loved Patrick Somerville's outstanding The Universe in Miniature in Miniature earlier this year. The stories in Trouble are more realistic, less galactic, equally powerful, and some readers may actually prefer the more familiar landscape. I highly recommend them, and either way, you should be reading this author. Look for a new novel coming out in the summer of 2012.