By Susan Bernhard. (Little A, 339 pages, $24.95.)
If ever there were a child of trauma, it’s teenager Wes Ballot, the beleaguered protagonist of Susan Bern-hard’s deeply moving and beautifully paced debut novel, “Winter Loon.” As a young boy, Wes lives in abject poverty, watching his alcoholic parents, Moss and Valerie, drink and fight. He loves them both, as children do. But Moss is forever deserting them, and one night, Valerie, drunk and angry, cajoles 15-year-old Wes into following a loon’s cry out onto a frozen lake in northern Minnesota. She falls through the ice to her death, almost pulling terrified Wes with her.
Moss, chagrined and drunk, runs off again, leaving Wes with his deeply troubled maternal grandparents, who have dark secrets of their own. What follows — Wes’ survival in their home, which is thanks largely to the gentle and patient Ojibwe adoptive parents of the teen girl he falls for, who, like him, has lost a mother in a traumatic way, is an excruciating but redemptive story, beautifully told by Bernhard.
Moss, Wes’ wayward dad, is the novel’s most mysterious and compelling character. “Sometimes it’s easier to build something new than to fix something broken,” Moss tells Wes in a rare moment of self-understanding. Nothing is simple, easy or predictable in Wes’ story, yet it is highly believable and inspiring, and a thoughtful study of the complexities of family and the nature of true belonging. “Winter Loon” is a page-turner, beautifully rendered, and a most impressive debut.
You Know You Want This By Kristen Roupenian. (Scout Press, 225 pages, $24.99.)
“Love breeds monsters” in Kristen Roupenian’s evocative debut short story collection, “You Know You Want This,” full of dark missives from lust’s front lines. The tone of the dozen mostly macabre stories ranges from realistic to Gothic to truly horrific.
Roupenian deftly captures the #MeToo zeitgeist in “Cat Person,” which went viral when it was originally published in the New Yorker. Self-conscious but not self-aware college student Margot decides it would be too awkward to back out of sex with the older Robert; of course, the sex and its aftermath are more awful yet. In “The Good Guy,” the day of reckoning has arrived for a man who seduces women with his “nice” act.
Several tales depict “slippery magic.” In the grimly humorous “Scarred,” a woman gradually destroys the perfect man she has conjured as she performs subsequent spells, rationalizing that she’ll “find some other love.” An unpopular girl avenges herself and her jilted mom with a game of “Sardines.” A princess falls irrevocably in love with her own image in “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone.” A Peace Corps volunteer finds himself tormented by the schoolgirls he’s teaching in “The Night Runner.”
The remaining stories illustrate all manner of contemporary terrors. A standout is “Look at Your Game, Girl,” an update of Joyce Carol Oates’ 1966 caution against talking to strangers “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Roupenian’s twisted imagination just may haunt your nightmares.