BY ERIC MARKOWSKY

Author: Stuart Nadler

2011, Regan Arthur Books

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories.

In seven longer-than-average short stories, Stuart Nadler takes on fathers and sons, lovers and ex-lovers, philandering philanderers, sibling rivalries, and orphans of all ages. These stories are expansive, opening landscapes of regret and redemption all along the Northeast Corridor. Each one boasts moments of hard-earned clarity rendered with a degree of precision that made me pause to admire their craftsmanship, craftsmanship I found all the more impressive for the complexity of the stories themselves.

While Nadler’s prose is simple and direct, the tales he tells tend to distort conventional relationships almost beyond recognition. In one, a girlfriend hires a surrogate temptress to test her boyfriend. In another, a man, his lover, her husband, and their children all add up to something like a family. In other hands, setups like these could easily descend into melodrama; in Nadler’s hands the result is something much less predictable and much more memorable.

In “Winter on the Sawtooth,” the narrator shares his wife knowingly, if not happily, with her lover. Their son, Josh, home from his first semester of college for Thanksgiving, isn’t crazy about the idea, and he’s not about to hide it. “Sawtooth” offers my hands-down favorite moment in the collection, and I can’t think of a better example of Nadler’s ability to pry a moment wide open, exposing it to the light of multiple perspectives. It’s this ability more than anything else that allows his characters to appear fully formed and finely flawed amid their sordid stories.

Having declared a truce, father and son, more like brothers or old buddies, sneak out to an abandoned mill to have a beer where the local teens drink. Josh wants to show his father pictures from his first semester, specifically pictures of a girl he’s met, Sarah. The narrator is pleased to be bonding with his son, but he can’t help feeling out of place playing with his son’s laptop in the middle of the woods.

At first, the narrator’s not sure what to make of what he’s looking at, standard college pics of parties and dorm life. But then:

My interest is piqued because of the sheer volume. He has so many photographs of Sarah. Pictures in which she is the focus, in which she is posing, in which she is wearing black tights and patent leather shoes, wearing merino wool and a foolish pillbox hat, wearing Levi’s and canvas shoes, wearing a loose green-and-white baseball-team ringer T-shirt. And there are pictures in which she exists by accident, as an incidental ornament in someone else’s portrait, a blurry figure in the back of a Chinese restaurant. For the few minutes I look, and for days afterward, I’m left with a dark, discomfiting regret that, for all my effort, I can’t seem to lose.

“Here,” Josh says. “Let me show you a picture from he day I met her.”

To have such a thing, I think.

Between the son’s enthusiasm and the father’s regret lies the gulf of a life lived, well in some respects, poorly in others, but past and passing regardless, and certainly not nearly as well documented as the life of his son. That Josh is oblivious to what an older generation might find amazing about something he takes for granted only compounds his father’s amazement. Josh sees what the pictures mean to him now; his father sees what they could mean to him later and envies his son.

Each story in The Book of Life contains a few moments like this one, moments that convey before and after, as if the image were its own negative. Moments like these sometimes stood out even above the stories themselves, so that I find myself more eager to recommend the book as a whole over any particular entry in the table of contents. The length of these stories (the shortest is over 20 pages, the longest is over 40) and the care taken to develop character suggests that Nadler is comfortable in a longer format. According to his website, he’s working on finishing a novel. The Book of Life is very good; I’m betting his novel could be even better.

Similar reads: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Packer), The Feast of Love (Baxter), The View From Stalin’s Head (Hamburger)

[A review copy was provided.]

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