In this debut collection of short stories and flash fiction pieces, Lincoln Michel, a young New York City-based writer, stakes out his place in the contemporary fiction landscape. It's a hip spot, an updated hometown where John Cheever, Karen Russell and maybe even Ben Marcus all live comfortably together in slightly surreal suburban sadness, striving for something a little better.
In these stories, ranging from one to several pages long, Michel tends to follow offbeat characters — divorcées, a dictator's bodyguards, an artist who can't get anything done at an artist's colony — whose hopes, dreams and goals get lost somewhere in the middle of America, never to be found again. It's frequently entertaining, if also frequently dour stuff.
Like Cheever, Michel has a persistent interest in suburbs as havens for the lost. In "Our New Neighborhood," a paranoid husband becomes a one-man neighborhood watch, mounting cameras, piloting drones and eventually forcing a showdown between warring local factions. Meanwhile, his pregnant wife trolls online dating sites as their marriage falls apart and then miraculously heals.
In "Filling Pools" a divorced man finds an occupational niche for himself filling in the deep ends of local pools in a grief-stricken town after a drowning accident. Michel is good at creating characters with compelling thwarted personality quirks and situations, and his theme seems to be that, ultimately, no matter what they undergo, people don't change much — they're stuck with who they are at the start. He's great at beginnings, though his endings sometimes fall flat.
In "The Room Inside my Father's Room," a fantastical piece, successive male generations of a family spend their whole lives in a series of concentric, increasingly small rooms, until the youngest is actually living in a box. "Seeing him lounging in his chair made me angry," says that box-bound son, "I don't even have a place to sit!"
"You know how ungrateful you are?" says his father. It's an amazing setup, but it's hard not to wonder about the world beyond these rooms, and the story never lets us see it.
The most moving pieces here are ones in which there's real empathy for how people lose hope, or how and why they carry without it. In "Hike," Cheryl contemplates ending her ambivalent relationship with Paul. "Before Paul," she thinks, "there had been Theodore, and before Theodore there had been Christopher, Jeremy, Karl, Andy, and Abraham. And there was another horrible line of them waiting in the future, with even worse names like Kevin and Camden."
Michel's own ambivalence about endings works best when it leads to insight. After a series of ridiculous missteps in the woods, Cheryl finds herself in "another in an unending succession of situations in which she had no interest in learning what it was she was required to do." That's lovely, penetrating writing with real knowledge of how passively some people make life's biggest decisions.
Craig Morgan Teicher is a poet and book critic living in New Jersey.