The 11 linked stories in Scott Wrobel's debut collection portray men on the brink. They're drunk, horny, exhausted, crude, combative with their wives, freaked out by their kids. Wrobel's "regular guys" live in a Minneapolis-area cul de sac with a patch of wilderness at the back of their property lines. Coyotes live here, both real and imagined, stalking the men who inhabit this bleak suburban neighborhood.
To stave off their demons, men pressure-wash their boats, play video games and watch old war movies and sometimes porn. They take their kids to fun fests at the mall and to Disney World. They eat takeout, eye the future with desperation and pride themselves on their broad-mindedness, even as they joke about blacks, Jews and gays. In unadorned (and often raw and expletive-rich) language, Wrobel delineates a blue-collar world where the wives spend their time scrapbooking and their husbands wonder how they got trapped in this joyless domesticity.
In "After the Lovin'," Byron, a small man with an Engelbert Humperdinck fetish, is married to 550-pound Betty, once merely "hefty in a bawdy, Bette Midler sort of way." One day he can't decide whether to visit his dying father, a sadistic wife beater, or go home to haul his gargantuan spouse from the kitchen, where he'd absent-mindedly parked her, to the bedroom where she spends her days as well as nights. Finding her beached on the kitchen carpet, he makes a decision that will change their lives.
In "Swimming," one of six stories centering on Gary Wiegard, owner of a truss manufacturing company, Gary, his wife, Liz, and their youngest son, Danny, vacation in Florida, where each pursues separate pleasures. One day they visit Weeki Wachee Springs, where the human mermaids conjure a vision for Gary of the high point of his life.
In "Engravings," Gary's 19-year-old son, Peter, brings Amanda, a gal pal with a pierced tongue and an attitude, to dinner. She and Peter are artistic misfits, gay and disaffected. The emotional dissonance between forty-something Gary and his closeted son explodes when Peter tries to come out and Gary snorts, "I'm gay, too, fella. How'm I gonna tell my wife?"
A few glitches mar the work: Gary's mother is named both Carol and Darla, and in one story, his father is Jewish, in another, Catholic. Gary's age within a story veers between 42 to 44. The priest at his dying father's bedside is named Lyle, which unfortunately is also the name of Gary's tax attorney and uncle. In one story his cousins are all older than he is, in another, one is younger. (Note: These glitches were in an Advanced Reader Copy of the book.)
A note on the Wiegards' refrigerator that Liz leaves for her sixth-grader precisely conveys Wrobel's stark vision and black humor: "There's a chicken dinner in the freezer and sometimes I think this world is another planet's hell."
Kathryn Lang is former senior editor at SMU Press in Dallas.