In her native Alaska, Leigh Newman finds everything she needs to overcome themes of betrayal and isolation, of desertion and disintegration (physical, psychological, spiritual). In her short story collection NO ONE COMES OUT ALIVE (Scribner, 278 pp., $26), the heroic loom of the mountains – “contented giants, their faces slit by ice and moonlight” – gives way to the splintered souls – “ill, bewildered, clouded with regret” – that prowl the foothills below. A pair of sisters, crushed by their parents’ divorce and alcoholism, turn their pain on each other, riding a “sick seesaw” of devotion and rejection. In ‘Slide and Glide’, a man tries to save his marriage by forcing his family to embark on a risky trek through the wilderness in search of ‘something more than love – trust’. And a California newcomer, convinced of the palliative ‘dazzle of Alaska’, discovers that ‘nothing is solved here, nothing is better. Where else can you go, except go mad?”
Newman centers much of the action on a man-made lake near Anchorage, and her characters move between stories like pieces in a sliding puzzle, their trauma in one story repositioning itself in another. Their hinterland bravado—shooting wolves with turboprops, using gliders like taxis, plucking mastodon fossils from melting glaciers—is animated by Newman’s flair for description. A wealthy cad, nestled in “a log cabin with too many antler chandeliers,” has “some sort of farm potato in the middle of his face.” An adventurer spells secrets “in his mind like a catalog of crumbling butterflies.” Many of these lives would have landed on a promising frontier had they not been held back by the same crippling forces — opioids, Reddit, Costco — as those in the bottom 48.
We are all marching to our doom, the title of Newman’s collection reminds us. But, as these vivid stories make clear, it is our “tough, terrifying determination” to survive that gives us life.
The 13 Stories in Ladee Hubbard’s New Collection, THE LAST SUSPECT HOLDOUT (Amistad, 207 pp., $24.99), chart with wisdom and sensitivity nearly two decades of life in a Southern black community, from the days of Bill Clinton’s criminal law to George W. Bush’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina and the moments of “hope and renewal” in Barack Obama’s first presidential run. Characters are ravaged by trauma, both personal (drug addiction, suicide, chronic unemployment) and political (police brutality, gentrification, structural racism), and dazed by the fear that the two are inextricably linked. In “Crack Babies!” a high school teacher impresses with his accusations: “Every day of your life is an open battle against the lies told about you.”
The changing battlefield urges tactics to vary. Struggling to free a sibling from an unjust jail time, the title character in “Henry” decides not to tear down the system but exploit it – “stop trying to make my brother a symbol” and “look or we can’t escape him out the back door.” The young girl in “There He Go” rewrites her family’s sour history with “lies as sweet as she could make them.” A young man manages to deal with death with the gaiety of chatter in the waiting room: “Anyway, she’s dead now.”
Hubbard’s narration pulses with poeticity – bullets tumble “on the floor like loose change”; An ED’s fluorescent lights soar “like a depression” — though it can slip into the vulgar parlance of public policy notes in its efforts to inform it. Yet the collection burns with unassailable truths, and many stories are less of a lament than a roguish tribute to spirit and ingenuity. “Bitch: An Etymology of Family Values” enjoys a word that can be “hissed in absolute scorn and whispered in absolute tenderness.” When the uncle in “Yams” pedanticly attributes his family’s love of sweet potatoes to the plant’s central role in the slave diet, his sister jokes, “Sure, it’s not the sugar?”
Parental Anxiety, Marital Anxiety, Family Obligations, Ancestral Debts: What Seems The Merely Unpleasant Conventions Of Domestic Life Torment Alexander MacLeod’s Wives And Men ANIMAL PERSON (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 243 pp., $27) with hushed cruelty. When relatives die, babies are conceived, and lovers settle into chaste routines, they elude any reliable understanding of who these characters are and where they belong. They are estranged from each other and from themselves. The grown brothers in “The Dead Want” return home for a funeral to find that they had “the same fading hairline and the same dark eyes, the same patterns in their chromosomes, whatever—none of that enough.”
Set largely in Canada, the stories in this beautiful collection are expertly acted and closely observed. The fundamentally decent couple in “Lagomorph” reflexively bruised each other: “We never really knew how to be a wife or husband all the time.” An unclear disappointment saturates another cohabiting but single couple: “When I meet her in bed, I try not to disturb her, or even touch her body, as I sit next to her. We should both be ready to go tomorrow morning.”
Many of MacLeod’s stories are set in a volcanic moment: a family confrontation with a serial killer or the sexual assault of a boy. But the author puts a lot of faith in the value of detail separate from plot. Medical oxygen tanks have “clear tubes, very thin, that run up from the canister, then behind the ears, over the upper lip and in small grooves in front of each nostril.” His gaze is stern, but not dishonest, and reveres the intermingled beauty and horror of entangled existences. “Only guided by what we desire do we go out into the world and find our way,” says the narrator of “The Closing Date.” “And then we sleep, each of us in temporary bedrooms that will one day be occupied by other people.”
Mike Peed is an editor at The Times.