Saïd Sayrafiezadeh's first book revealed who he was and where he came from. "When Skateboards Will be Free" (2009) was a candid, clear-eyed memoir of what he called his "political childhood," namely his years spent growing up in Pittsburgh and being force-fed the socialist dogma of an Iranian-born father and American Jewish mother. His next book showed what he could do not with fact, but with fiction. "Brief Encounters With the Enemy" (2013) consisted of eight stories about dislocated men struggling to fit in and get ahead.
Sayrafiezadeh's latest book, "American Estrangement," is another arresting collection of stories fronted by embattled male protagonists. If it doesn't see him branching out and exploring new territory, it at least consolidates his reputation as a skilled writer with a talent for creating flawed and beleaguered characters and plumbing their emotional depths.
In the first tale, "Audition," we meet an aspiring actor who harbors dreams of making it in Hollywood but for the moment works for his father's construction company. Every time he summons the resolve to move to L.A., he loses his nerve and retreats into "the soft, downy repetitiveness of my hometown, with its low stakes, high livability, and steady paycheck."
An acting break presents itself, but so too does another chance to smoke crack cocaine with a fellow laborer. In a drug-fueled moment of clarity he re-evaluates his golden opportunity and takes a first step toward throwing away his future.
Wally in "Metaphor of the Falling Cat" suffers from a more worrying kind of fixation, as evidenced by the account of his "season of compulsion." Meanwhile, the narrator of "A, S, D, F" has nothing to obsess over in his empty art gallery in Aspen — that is until his boss' daughter Mimi arrives on the scene.
Two stories feature men bonding with a parent under special circumstances. "A Beginner's Guide to Estrangement" follows a man who flies from New York to Tehran to visit and, with luck, reconnect with the father he hasn't seen for 15 years. However, his jet lag, "a toxic combination of depletion, dejection, and befuddlement," compounds his sense of alienation.
"Last Meal at Whole Foods," the most poignant tale here, centers on a dying woman and her son and their efforts to make the most of their remaining time together.
No stories have cut-and-dried conclusions. Some have legs and could have kept on running. Two are markedly strange. In "Fairground," a young boy is taken by his stepfather to watch what turns out to be an "anticlimactic" public hanging. The when, where and why are all tantalizingly withheld from us. Similarly, in "Expedition," it isn't clear why a couple are on a road trip with no destination in mind, or what has made the society around them change for the worse.
It pays not to ask questions. Instead, just surrender to the raw power and offbeat charm of these expertly wrought tales.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Said Sayrafiezadeh.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 224 pages, $25.95.