The story also establishes that, these days, the woman’s got a strategy for containing her demons: “cultivating a noisy life.” She teaches writing (as does van den Berg) and volunteers at a women’s crisis center. Yet a rare quiet moment jogs her memory of the night before her discharge from the institution, when she risked everything in a brief breakout with her two roommates. Those girls help goad her into this dubious celebration, in fact. The setting renders them more than friends: “We lived together for 10 months . . . An island of girl. We brushed each other’s hair. We pinched each other’s waists. . . . We wept secrets. We eavesdropped nightmares.”
To leave this “island” means the narrator is no longer a “girl.” Adulthood claims her, yet few fictions summon up the transition’s ambivalence with such spooky power. The mixed feelings emerge again in the story’s closing words, leaving a splendid chill: “those ghosts I killed to survive.” Happily, too, I can quote that line without spoiling a thing, because “Last Night” has so much else going on. It includes a few smart touches of metafiction, as the teacher of stories comments on the one she’s telling. On top of that — check out those verbs! “Wept” and “eavesdropped” throw off fresh glimmers, given the spin van den Berg puts on them.
A similar richness of reading pleasures brims in every one of these 11 tales. “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears” is the author’s third collection, and she has two novels as well — the latest, “The Third Hotel,” a humdinger — and this book offers the greatest distillation of her talents to date. To pick a best story is beyond me; now I favor “Volcano House,” now “Karolina,” and now the closer, also the title piece.
That wolf image, so tense, so palpable, was first dreamed up by the comic playwright Terence, who worked in Rome about 2,000 years ago. It’s proved a keeper, the very model of “active voice,” so prized in writing workshops. Among van den Berg’s protagonists, only the first runs such a workshop, but all of them keep things hopping. The voice is just part of the excitement, with its pyrotechnic verbs. In the final piece, a disoriented American in Sicily, Margot, stands on her mountaintop balcony at dusk, looking down over the switchbacks: “Headlights porpoise along the roads.”
Eye-popping description, however, is far from the only form of liveliness in these narratives. The recurring drama is that of identity lost, reinvented or both: A job creates a new persona, sisters swap lives. Amid the flux, the players scramble to catch up with what’s happening to them, in dialogue that throws a reader off-kilter, if delightfully. In Margot’s case, the hotel manager has misplaced her passport — anyway, she’s staying under her sister’s name — but when she at last gets the chance to confront the man, hours later, his response is a zinger, at once blasé and bristly:
“I suppose you’ll find out tomorrow. . . . Do you people ever consider the possibility that none of you have anything that we want?”
What’s more, the encounter takes place not at the front desk, or in a police station, but out in the piazza at twilight. Stranger yet, the passport doesn’t occupy much of the conversation. Both prefer to talk about the wedding cake the manager brought to the table; the confection, locals claim, has supernatural powers. Such magic often flits around the edges of “Hold a Wolf,” yet I count only two stories that entail something truly surreal. One of the briefest and scariest plays a diabolical trick on the relationship between two women, the last thing you’d expect in a book so dependent on sisterhood.
Even in that piece, however, van den Berg needs no voodoo. Something so innocuous as a wrong turn or an oddball memory can upend the personality — and isn’t that the real magic of the form? The abyss that opens under the least crack? Thus the pervading mood recalls Hitchcock, and the title story breaks into a breathless chase down fogbound alleyways. And though “Slumberland” has no such exotic locations, taking place in scruffy developers’ Florida, it too sets the eerie cheek by jowl with the ordinary: “these big apartment complexes . . . they were a kind of purgatory where we docked until our souls were called elsewhere.”
John Domini’s latest book is a novel, “The Color Inside a Melon”; his next will be the memoir “The Archeology of a Good Ragù.”
I HOLD A WOLF BY THE EARS
By Laura van den Berg
Farrar Straus and Giroux. 224 pp. $26