The most compelling characters in Jason K. Friedman’s “Fire Year” may be the ones with the least to say. Their silences add to the impact of their stories and reveal Friedman’s capacity for depicting the excluded, those cast out or simply out of step.
Given that its plot involves an old woman and a cow, “All the World’s a Field” may seem unlikely to rank among the best stories in the book, but Friedman does something special with Miriam, a Jewish grandmother living with her sons and their families in the Savannah, Ga., of the 1920s.
Wanting their children to know only English, Miriam’s sons forbid her from speaking Yiddish. She complies by not speaking at all, living a silent routine in their “neighborhood of poor Jews,” tending her cow and selling milk.
“Life did not weigh so heavily on Miriam; her transactions in the world were pleasant and smooth,” Friedman writes. “You do not need to speak to have your chicken plucked; you hand it to the woman whose job it is to do this all day long. You smile, you nod, you shake your head.”
When Miriam’s sons disrupt her contentment by deciding to buy a new home among respectable neighbors, she must decide how to respond.
With the exception of “Reunion,” which provides evidence that reading about a 25th high school reunion is as likely to disappoint as going to one, Friedman presents intriguing characters and situations, in circumstances contemporary and historical.
In “There’s Hope for Us All,” an assistant curator stumbles onto a potentially important discovery when his boyfriend, in a moment of naïve insight, looks at a painting and points out something unnoticed for centuries.
In “The Golem,” a body-shop owner named Solomon Blaustein hires a boyhood friend, an afflicted man in need of a helping hand, and while the move proves a boon to Blaustein, it shines a light on his moral shortcomings.
Friedman’s title story presents another character weighted by silence. Zev is a rabbi’s son whose neighbors and peers consider him an agent of bad luck.
He never speaks in class until he finally challenges his father in front of a full room.
“Zev seemed to be close to tears,” Friedman writes, “and now he looked around at his classmates imploringly, as if to ask, Which one of you will have the courage to say that you have felt what I have felt? Who here will say that what the rabbi is telling us to do doesn’t work?”
Nick Healy is the author of the story collection “It Takes You Over.” He lives in Mankato.