"Sweet & Low" (Blue Rider Press), by Nick White.
"Sweet & Low," a collection of short stories by Nick White, is set primarily in modern-day Mississippi, but the themes of these stories reach well beyond the Southern locale.
Sexual longing, both straight and gay, and fractured family life are part of White's territory.
The 10 stories, most published in recent years by literary reviews, are written in a measured, no-frills style. The reading is easy, and while some scenes are too lengthy, there are jolting twists as well. Distinctive endings, particularly those of the first four stories, are worth the wait.
One of the four, "These Heavenly Bodies," introduces a rare figure in American fiction — conjoined twins, Beth and Bella Cade, about 16 years old, who agree to be sketched nude by a slightly younger boy.
Five of the last six stories in the collection revolve around a central character, Forney Culpepper, who was raised on a farm in the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta. In the first of these, he's a likable young boy, observant and caring. He misses his deceased father and is protective of his mother, who wants to pursue the singing career she gave up for marriage.
In the ensuing stories, Forney is a 14-year-old coming to term with life's twists, then a sexually reckless college student and would-be poet. Later, he has an improbable job — coach of a women's college softball team — and finally he's a grumpy middle-aged man, with a young gay son, back on the Delta farm with his still-single mom, now called MeMaw.
The less-than-smooth arc of Forney's life is drawn in these five stories. A sixth story, "The Curator," is not so easy to mesh with Forney's saga. White, who is from Mississippi and teaches creative writing at Ohio State University, seems to be playing with the legend of William Faulkner and his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Names and facts are changed, but the curator's story, at one point literally, dances on a great author's grave.