Mike Alberti’s impressive “Some People Let You Down” won the 2020 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. His stories take place in upstate New York; at a hobo convention in Erie, Pa.; in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; in Sims, N.D., and Woods, Kan.
A ghost town where buildings and houses “sag and buckle in the wind,” Woods figures in four stories. The town acts as a literal and figurative touchstone for the lost, a place for possible redemption.
Though not yet deserted, other failing towns appear in the stories. A community near Cooperstown, N.Y., suffers a plague of caterpillars. When the pestilence stops, the narrator remarks, “Somehow, the whole town seemed a little shabbier than we remembered, not so quaint as pitiful.”
Elsewhere, men die in Vietnam or die emotionally upon returning from Afghanistan, barns on abandoned farms collapse, people drown. During a firestorm in Sims, a pastor recalls a picture he’s shown his catechists: “Four huge horsemen riding across the plains and revealing God’s awful wrath in their fiery wake.” The four horsemen become a subtext in these beautiful stories, which spring from tragedies of war, famine and death.
Whereas some characters in Alberti’s book neglect the suffering of others, many — for instance, the teenage Jenna in “Woods, Kansas” — become solicitous of the displaced and downtrodden.
Fleeing a drugged-addicted woman in a deserted house, the high school student returns to help her, though much later. During the intervening weeks, the pregnant Jenna has seen on her own and others’ faces the “hopeless, desperate, unappeasable need” she saw on the woman’s haunted face.
In “Destiny,” another Woods story, a woman police officer discovers a runaway shivering in a hayloft. “Are you hurt? I can help you. Are you okay?” she asks, genuinely concerned.
In the heartbreaking “The Upper Peninsula,” a couple return to the Lake Michigan shore each year on the anniversary of their son’s drowning. As if to ease the loss, “the moon was calling sadly to the lake, and the lake, listening, was trying to lift toward it.” This piece and the earlier “Two Floods” and “Kid Kansas” strengthen the book.
The gem here is “Prairie Fire, 1899.” Twice toward the end as the fire advances on Sims, Alberti shifts from declarative to imperative sentences. This striking move enables the author to capture the common humanity, the lost dreams of the people of Sims. The second lyrical passage begins, “And let us imagine, finally, that God was looking down upon Sims that night.”
Most of the stories reflect the compassion of ordinary people. In this way, Alberti’s characters orient themselves toward the divine.
The author is managing director of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.
Anthony Bukoski lives in Superior, Wis. In spring 2021, the University of Wisconsin Press will publish his short-story collection, “The Blondes of Wisconsin.”
Some People Let You Down
By: Mike Alberti.
Publisher: University of North Texas Press, 192 pages, $14.95.
Virtual events: Book launch with Charles Baxter, 7 p.m. Nov. 17, hosted by Moon Palace Books, register at bit.ly/2I5l3RI; 7 p.m. Nov. 20, hosted by Next Chapter, register at bit.ly/34VoTWi