Laura Kasischke’s short-story collection concerns places we might not wish to visit. At her urging, we snoop through drawers, open doors and cross other physical and psychological boundaries. “They’d all warned her not to snoop,” reads the book’s first line. In “Mona,” a mother can’t help herself. By prying into her daughter’s life, she makes her own life miserable.
Why bother looking through your daughter’s things, her friends ask, “since you’ll have no idea what to do with the knowledge you’ll gain if you gain it?” This is before the inquisitive mother finds a bizarre object in Amelia’s dresser. In Kasischke’s world, once you breach private places — your husband’s wallet, your daughter’s dresser drawer, your ex-wife’s front door — there’s no escaping the consequences.
In “The Barge,” a young girl being taunted on a bridge crosses a spatial, and subsequently psycho-sexual, boundary when she drops her rag doll to the brutal barge workers on the river below. Dropping the doll was “my hideous idea entirely” she confesses in this coming-of-age story which is partly about the narrator’s grandmother. The next morning, the doll (the grandmother in earlier times) transforms into a “very young” blonde girl sitting on the men’s laps smoking a cigarette, “a smear of fiery lipstick on her mouth.” When they touched her, “she just laughed and let them.”
In “Search Continues for Elderly Man,” an 80-year-old leaves his home, a physical and psychological sanctuary, to seek what he could have been in life. In the equally powerful title story, Kathy Bliss, an employee for a nonprofit agency, crosses another boundary. Waiting to fly out of Grand Rapids, Mich., she agrees to carry on the plane headed for Portland, Maine, a package a man gives her for his mother. Her doing so potentially endangers other passengers. Later, Bliss keeps for herself the present “wrapped in gold paper.” Having violated others’, including the stranger’s, trust, she begins “petrifying” morally, mirroring the disease she raises money to fight, which petrifies the physical body.
In Kasischke’s book, unsettling encounters occur in both familiar places — airports, suburban neighborhoods — and in surreal locations. In “Our Father,” children camouflage their father in gray rags on a gray couch in case “Officials” look for him during “the War.” But what war? Where?
A few of this artful book’s 15 stories provide little payoff or their eccentricities seem overdone, such as “The Prisoners” and “Somebody’s Mistress, Somebody’s Wife.” The many successful stories, however, are masterfully told.
An accomplished writer, Kasischke has published eight novels and eight poetry collections. Her “Space, in Chains” won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. Though unsettling, this debut story collection makes gripping reading.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.