FICTION: A collection of stories about friends, siblings and lovers.
The plainest assessment of Kevin Clouther’s first book, a story collection called “We Were Flying to Chicago,” may be this: It includes two kinds of stories — those focused on his ideas and those devoted to his characters. There’s also this fact: Only the latter really soar.
Now living in New York, Clouther spent his youth in New England and south Florida, and he’s a product of the University of Virginia and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He draws upon this history for the settings of his stories and, when at his best, creates memorable characters peculiar to each place.
A small Iowa town provides the stage for “The Third Prophet of Wyaconda,” the funny and curiously moving story of a stranger named Henry Alexander, who arrives as if from nowhere and begins preaching daily outside the barbershop. Henry leaves some townspeople annoyed, some bemused, and others curious. When he predicts a miracle by the end of the month, locals respond with characteristic skepticism.
“But what if it did happen?” Clouther writes. “You couldn’t help but entertain the thought, even if only for a second. Because if it did happen, it would have to be something inexplicable, and what would that something be? The instinct was to guess, to put a name to the unnameable, and all across Wyaconda that’s precisely what people did.”
The finest moments include interactions between Henry and Wyaconda’s local pastor, and their relationship lifts the story to a heartfelt conclusion. In other successful pieces, Clouther focuses on intimacies and difficulties between friends, lovers and siblings.
“Isabelle and Colleen” follows 13-year-old Jim, who pursues an innocent attraction to a classmate while his family struggles to come to terms with the fact that Jim’s older brother, a senior in high school, will soon be a father. Clouther closes his book with “Puritan Hotel, Barnstable,” an understated and affecting story of two brothers brought together by one’s illness and forced to confront their differences and their difficult father.
Other stories are less effective, mostly because they hold the reader at a distance. Clouther’s title story is told from the collective first-person perspective of a group of airline passengers whose flight is diverted. Setting aside some clever insights, there’s little to hold onto, little to care about. The same could be said of “Open House” and “I Know Who You Are,” which delivers lines such as, “His English was better than my Spanish. I didn’t speak any Spanish, and he didn’t speak any English.”
But the lesser stories here are things worth enduring, just as you would a difficult journey, so you can enjoy what awaits you on the other end.
Nick Healy is the author of the story collection “It Takes You Over.” He lives in Mankato.