Jim Praley – the aspiring writer who narrates Benjamin Lytal’s fantastic debut novel – is back home in Tulsa after his first year away at college. The quietly eccentric son of schoolteachers, he’s planning a monastic summer of reading, writing, and daydreaming about other places. His hometown strikes him as empty, maybe dead: a city built by oil barons, where “the silence of the suburban front yards washed up right to the roots of the skyscrapers.” Until one afternoon, when he drives impulsively to a local bar and runs into a popular girl from his old high school, a chance encounter that draws him into the hidden city, a world of vibrant, melancholic parties in grand houses and an obsessive first love that ends in tragedy: a ‘Great Gatsby’ of the plains.
In this remarkable short-story collection, Manuel Gonzales explores the strange territory of everyday American life, with an unerring eye for the magnificently weird and funny: A scientist accidentally miniaturizes his wife; a hijacked plane circles Dallas for 20 years on rumors of “perpetual oil”; an (actual) office zombie struggles to keep his unholy appetites in check. But there’s nothing offhandedly quirky about these tales: It’s all so hilariously familiar, and also painful and heartbreaking. Gonzales brings great humanity to his oddball scenarios, illuminating the loneliness of suburbia, the quiet desperation of office work, the conflicts of fatherhood, the trials of marriage – even as the people you love decamp for other lives, new and alien and difficult to accept.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this short memoir from MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Aleksandar Hemon is the sheer amount of terrain it covers, both geographic and emotional. And, by extension, the bewildering number of lives Hemon has led in his 48 years: from the innocent days of street soccer in Sarajevo to a reckless adolescence in the city’s avant-garde to the “hedonistic oblivion” before the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina – and finally, to the Chicago of his accidental exile. Hemon was stranded in the U.S. when the Siege of Sarajevo began, forcing him to vicariously endure the horrors of war through the stories of friends and family left behind. Hemon tells his own story, and reveals the lives of others, with the rarest mix of energy and clarity and wit. It’s simply impossible to look away.