Set in Las Vegas and San Francisco, these nine stories by David Philip Mullins recount episodes in Nick Danze's life. Fatherless and heartbroken at 14, Nick tries through sexual experimentation to fill the emotional and psychological void his father's death creates in him. In "Arboretum," he is bewildered by his homoerotic encounters with a classmate at a plywood fort they build in the desert. "Relax. We're not fags, dude," the one-legged classmate tells him. "It's only practice for the real thing, for when we both get girlfriends."
Encounters with a prostitute in "Longing to Love You," when Nick is 23, and with an older woman at the Club Venus swing club in "Driving Lessons," leave him ashamed and disappointed. In San Francisco, he uses his father's name, Jack, when he meets My-Duyen, the prostitute. In Nevada on Christmas Eve, he wears his father's clothes to the Club Venus, which stood "three miles from the interstate [in] the gaping darkness of the Mojave Desert." No matter which pleasures Nick seeks, his father's passing haunts him.
In "A Familiar Place," Nick's mother cannot overcome her loss, either, though she spends "half the life-insurance settlement ... on a new Mercedes-Benz." She also takes up smoking, gambles at the Golden Nugget and spends compulsively in every place from "the Forum shops at Caesar's Palace, to the outlets at the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard." Eight years after his father's death, Nick, in another story, catches her eating boxes of Domino sugar to ease her pain on Valentine's Day.
These are troubled characters, to be sure. The author's compassion for Nick and for those similarly distressed uplifts and enriches the stories, however. For example, before providing her services, My-Duyen says, "Tell me you love me, Jack." Then she says, "It's a thing I have. ... I need you to say it."
Nick's girlfriend, Annie, implores him to love her, too. Unfortunately, he doesn't know how. He is nowhere as mature as his father was.
By turns touching, humorous and sad, the stories, one especially, offer glimmers of hope for Nick's redemption. In "First Sight," he learns what truly loving Annie, now his wife of nine years, can mean to him. His awakening occurs when he discovers her with another man on a blustery night. Nick's indifference has driven her to this extreme.
"Greetings From Below," the title of Mullins' impressive debut, refers to a note Nick writes his father in heaven. The collection ends with Nick at 14 again. In "Crash Site on a Desert Mountain," his father is sick but still alive. When Mr. Danze dies, so too will Nick die emotionally and psychologically with his whole life ahead of him.
Anthony Bukoski, author of five short-story collections, lives in Superior, Wis.