FICTION: Story collection focuses on characters who have fallen on hard times, often of their own making.
At first glance, John Brandon’s first two novels, “Arkansas” and “Citrus County,” seemed to fall into a familiar space: a kind of rural noir where flawed figures come into conflict, leaving violence in their wake. The conclusion of “Arkansas,” however, tapped into the inevitability innate in most crime stories while also subverting it, eschewing more predictable scenes for a sense of reinvention.
“A Million Heavens,” his third novel, featured a more sprawling array of characters with widely ranging connections, and didn’t confine itself to realism: One of the book’s central characters called the afterlife home. You won’t go too far into “Further Joy,” Brandon’s first collection of short fiction, without realizing that same approach is at work here. Brandon, who is an assistant professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, prefers to go for the slow burn rather than the fast or loud. And while there’s a fine line between this and the anticlimactic, much of this book strikes a very resonant nerve.
Several of the stories center around the aftermath of failure: The protagonist of one story has returned to his hometown after the flameout of his career; another lives alone in an increasingly surreal space after the end of a relationship. Garner, the protagonist of opener “The Favorite,” sets the tone for the book. He’s admired for stepping back into old routines, but for him, it’s the inevitable result of his past failures. A chance encounter allows him access to knowledge that gives him an edge in betting on local sports; from there comes an opportunity to pay down the debts that forced him out of his old life. While other authors might focus on Garner getting in over his head, Brandon instead zeros in on the quiet creep of corruption and evokes the way Garner swings between elation and depression.
Throughout the collection, Brandon highlights the dynamics between characters who are painstakingly familiar with one another. The title story is told from the viewpoint of a group of young women and their fathers, and what emerges from it is a rich collective portrait, equally versed in commonalities and variations. The narrator of “Estuary” notes at one point that “people who fail a lot wind up with a bunch of new skills.” That might well serve as a manifesto for this collection, and Brandon seems just as interested in the aftermath of failure as he is with how these new skills are applied, toward good and bad ends.
Not all of the stories in “Further Joy” click: Some end up conveying a mood powerfully well without quite providing a hook; a few read like the aftermath of other stories that were left unwritten. Still, Brandon’s command of resonant frustration and fear is precise. These are stories abounding with images and situations that tap into emotional and economic anxieties, and do so with style.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn.