In 2015, I reviewed with pleasure Gary Fincke’s short-story collection, “A Room of Rain.” Vandalia Press, the book’s publisher, now deserves credit for bringing out a volume of Fincke’s new and selected stories. Most of the 23 stories in “The Out-of-Sorts” occur in the Rust Belt.

In “Somebody, Somewhere Else,” Harold Plezik and the remaining residents of Centralia, Pa., are either too poor, old or proud to move away. Beneath them, a coal seam has smoldered for nearly 50 years. “We’re the Centralians, Harold … We’re from someplace,” his wife says, as trees wither from the pollution. “We live where we know who we are,” he says proudly, though “there were more days than not when the self-indulgence of sorrow absorbed” him.

Mined over, blighted, Fincke’s country stretches from western Ohio across Pennsylvania, then south and east a bit more. Often unemployed or underemployed, the people Fincke describes are psychologically, morally and spiritually blighted, the smoldering coal serving as an ominous metaphor. “It makes you wonder,” a character says. “There’s coal all around here. For miles in every direction.”

When a woman tells her husband, “I’ve only been crazy a few days, Ray. It’ll stop,” she could be speaking for the entire region, except when you’re out-of-sorts, the craziness, the paranoia, doesn’t stop. Whether along “the neutron bomb route winding west from Philadelphia” or in Akron, where the Aryan Nation runs a telephone call center, Fincke’s characters live in dangerous places, literally and figuratively.

In “Things That Fall From the Sky,” a rock thrown from a highway overpass smashes a car windshield and the lives inside. In “The Lightning Tongues,” a newsstand clerk at a Harrisburg mall imagines how it would feel to murder someone, as his former classmate has done. Living vicariously exacts a price when the clerk discovers that “the world belonged to the brutal and the instinctive who drift us darkly toward the recklessness in ourselves.”

Fincke is a patient, precise and wise reader of human nature, both in its depravity and its nobility. Thankfully, he’s also very funny. “Natural Borders” begins: “When Buck Keister and his former nun of a wife Merle took to riding their his-and-hers motorcycles naked, word got around quickly …” Later, Merle says about her drunkard husband, “Buck wears diapers when he’s into the bottle.” This occurs before she burns down the house, perhaps with Buck inside.

Despite the humor in these captivating tales, written over a 30-year period, the drift toward darkness persists, the drift downward “to where the fire burns hottest under the soil.”

 

Gary Fincke is a past winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

 

Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.

The Out-of-Sorts
By: Gary Fincke.
Publisher: Vandalia Press/West Virginia University Press, 327 pages, $24.99.