Near the end of the opening story in Eliot Treichel's debut collection of short fiction, the narrator takes stock of the circumstances into which he and his friend, known therein only as Dude, have fallen. "The situation was beyond us," he reports.
It's a frank and funny line. It's also a sentiment that applies to many of the characters populating the eight stories in "Close Is Fine," published by Portland's Ooligan Press.
The main thing Treichel's characters share is a place in the world -- northern Wisconsin, and its woods, rivers and rural communities. And his protagonists all seem to wind up, by will or by fate, in circumstances that are beyond them.
In "Papermaker Pride," a mouthy and funny coming-of-age story, Treichel constructs an endearingly odd but slightly stifling small town, where a winless soccer team plays in the shadow of a paper mill. The narrator just wants to stake out some dignified turf in a school where the halls "reeked of athleticism, which smelled much like Drakkar Noir." But his team is headed toward a final defeat so humiliating that his coach becomes unhinged. The narrator does the only thing he can do. He endures.
At his best, Treichel writes with thoughtfulness and wit, and in this book he delivers a handful of sincere, memorable and highly readable stories. His storytelling is never better than in "Stargazer," a curious tale about an unlikely friendship.
The story focuses on a guy called Walters, owner of one of those country bars dependent on hunters, anglers and cabingoers. Walters is between seasons, bored and a little surly. But his life's trajectory shifts after he finds an orphaned bear cub in the woods. He takes the cub home, a winter passes, and Walters dreams up a plan to stage bear-vs.-man wrestling matches in the yard behind his place. "A few people in the crowd were tourists," Treichel writes, "but most of the spectators were locals, and many hoped Walters would be eaten alive." He survives, and his plan succeeds in ways he couldn't have imagined.
The book includes some soft spots: "Good Potato Soil" feels less ambitious than others, and beyond its strong voice, there isn't much to connect with. Later "The Lumberjack's Story" stirs a rich and detailed vision of a lumber camp long ago, but in places the story plods and its payoff doesn't fully satisfy. In most cases, Treichel's missteps are minor and easily forgiven.
The Wisconsin native now lives in the Northwest and teaches writing at an Oregon community college. He writes about his former home with valuable perspective provided by time and distance and with honesty and insight. His book is full of engaging voices and unexpected images, words and turns.
A St. Paul native, Nick Healy is editorial director for Capstone and author of "It Takes You Over," published by New Rivers Press.