The characters in Becky Hagenston's third collection, "Scavengers," scramble for purchase in the face of loss: the big trio of injury, illness, death, but also capsized marriages and self-deception. Like the dung beetles so adored by 38-year-old Margaret in the title story, they're all, essentially, rolling up balls of cow dung — a bleak metaphor for the human condition if ever there was one.
After losing her admin job, Margaret chases her dream of reality TV stardom, while her own grasp on reality declines. An exchange between her and her condescending husband nails Hagenston's gift for dialogue and dark humor. Of her desire for a child, Margaret tells her husband: "But I can't help it! It's a biological imperative!" "So is death," he tells her.
The standout tale is "The Lake," in which thirty-something Matthew drives out to his father's mountain shack to confront what he sees as the older man's incipient dementia. His dad's place "looks like something out of a bad movie, the kind of place where teenagers get hacked to death," and his dad's apparently gone feral. But the danger doesn't lie at all where Matthew expects, and the story pulls off a set of masterly reversals.
Though mostly in the realist tradition, the collection makes a few forays into fantasy or fable: "Scavengers" eventually leaves planet reality, and "Secrets of Old-Time Science Experiments" features an eccentric "aunt" who conjures the Founding Fathers in the family basement for educational purposes. In "Crumbs," the grown-up Hansel and Gretel engage in petty bickering, and she pushes his buttons by baking gingerbread for Christmas. "Puppet Town" dips into a fascist enclave run by sock puppets.
When Hagenston plies well-trod short story ground, like the dinner party, the stories can feel dated. "Let Yourself Go," in which (possibly) cancer-stricken Martha and mismatched husband Larry suffer an awkward evening with "friends," quickly becomes a poor imitation of Lorrie Moore's 1989 classic "You're Ugly Too." It's hardly devoid of humor or insight, yet, like a few stories here, its characters and setting feel borrowed from the late-20th-century realist archive.
"Cool," narrated by a teenager whose mom has a case of arrested development, avoids these pitfalls, though Mom certainly exasperates, dressing in her daughter's miniskirts and snogging a roadie at the reunion tour of a Bon Jovi-type hair band. The evening of mom's first night in rehab the narrator takes to teasing bats by throwing pebbles in the air, which they swoop down to catch, mistaking them for bugs. But, she realizes, "it suddenly seems cruel for me to keep getting their hopes up."
"Scavengers" examines the moments when, as the bats never quite learn, hope just isn't enough.
Marian Ryan's work has appeared in Slate, Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Mail on Sunday and other publications.