With Nothing Gold Can Stay (Ecco, $24.99), Ron Rash cements his reputation as one of the foremost chroniclers of that mythic uber-America known as the South. Rash’s new stories depict, with almost anthropological precision, a proud, poverty-scarred milieu “where checkbooks never quite balanced and repo men and pawnbrokers loomed one turn of bad luck away.” Rash has been working this deep but narrow vein for years, and one can admire the consistency and discipline of his vision while at times feeling its limitations; he doesn’t swing at any pitches outside the strike zone, but he doesn’t hit for much power, either. At his best, as in the touching final story, “Three a.m. and the Stars Were Out,” Rash evokes an understated poignancy that is genuinely affecting. There’s often something moving about inarticulate men grappling with shared sadness. Several other stories show signs of his careful craft, a self-abnegating paring away of unnecessary elements. What is meant to be spare, laconic minimalism, though, can sometimes end up feeling undernourished, resulting in sketches that are long on rural atmospherics, but light on dramatic arc.
Manuel Gonzales’s striking debut collection, The Miniature Wife (Riverhead, $26.95), is an excellent example of what I have come to think of as the New Fabulism, a school of writers who hope to circumvent the conventions of realist literary fiction with humor, science fiction, magical realism, pop-culture allusiveness and a generally iconoclastic approach to narrative. Gonzales has built a peerless fictional universe by populating his stories with zombies, unicorns, werewolves and space warriors, and then giving them the sensibilities of worried middle managers. The narrator of a gruesome story called “Wolf!” says, politely: “I would like you to recognize that I am trying my best to get through this. I’m trying to be straightforward, honest, earnest,” even as he builds horrific booby traps. The homicidal zombie in “All of Me” dispatches the paramour of his office crush because he’s “concerned about the choices she was making.” The relentless tone of cockeyed reasonableness in the face of such improbable catastrophes — wives shrunk to one-20th of their normal size or atmospheres where sound waves are deadly — creates cognitive dissonance that’s hilarious and chilling. It’s hard not to detect a debt here to George Saunders, perhaps the most celebrated New Fabulist. Gonzales shares Saunders’s hopscotching inventiveness, but his view is even darker and more savage. The result is a superior collection of writing and a signpost of an emerging talent with a strong and distinctive voice.
Jess Walter, meanwhile, is as talented a natural storyteller as is working in American fiction these days. We Live in Water (HarperPerennial; paperback, $14.99), a slender collection meant to capitalize on the success of last year’s best-selling “Beautiful Ruins,” is a showcase for his abilities, containing a baker’s dozen of stories that range in quality from the admirably intentioned to the downright brilliant. Perhaps the most interesting of them, “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown of Spokane, Washington,” started its life in McSweeney’s as an Internet jeu d’esprit, but its inventive format turns strangely revealing by the end. Unlike “Beautiful Ruins” — which, despite its charms, I found ultimately sentimental and hollow — these stories have both zip and heart, muscle and soul. Like Rash, Walter works the margins of American life, depicting the homeless and incarcerated, the hopeless and the unlucky, although Walter brings a jagged streak of irreverent humor to the mix. It’s especially pleasing to see him returning to the fatalistic noir concerns that dominated his earlier fiction. He has always had a flair for a certain kind of American scofflaw: the hustlers, gamblers, dealers and crooked cops whom he portrays with a knowing, sardonic affection. “We Live in Water” circles the desperate and burnt-out, those who “know what the world does to helpless things,” or who are just trying to escape our modern “frontier of stale and unfulfilled dreams.”
Lindgren is a writer and musician who lives in Manhattan.