WHY VISIT AMERICA
By Matthew Baker
354 pp. Holt. $27.99.
In the title story of Baker’s new collection, “Why Visit America,” a small town in Texas announces in 2018 that it is seceding from the United States, and renames itself America. Its citizens go about the project of nation-building: raising a flag, composing a national anthem, establishing a currency, choosing leadership, even going as far as hosting a summit of other micronations.
The rest of the world either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, and America’s provocations go unremarked upon by its former country. One resident, Sam (like the neighboring country’s mascot), refuses to go along with secession, continuing to celebrate the Fourth of July and eventually leading an ill-advised violent rebellion.
When Sam is discovered setting off Independence Day fireworks, alone, he is admonished by a troop of loyalists. “This is America. Those fireworks don’t make you a patriot here. Those fireworks make you a traitor,” one says. “If you love the United States, if you love it there that much, then go live in it.”
It’s a story of several satirical and comedic masterstrokes, Baker at his best. The premises of the stories in “Why Visit America” are increasingly inventive and clever, often featuring some sort of reversal to our current social order, offering up allegorical commentary on who we are as Americans. In “Testimony of Your Majesty,” for example, we find a world where the conspicuously rich opulent consumers are looked down upon by the poor and frugal. In another story, memory erasure replaces incarceration, and a man who has committed a heinous crime has to adjust to a new life without a past.
Baker’s premises are all intriguing and start off showing promise, but his stories often get bogged down in the setup, in explaining the mechanics of the worlds he’s created. As the narratives become baggy, the conceits wear out their welcome, and the author seems to lose sight of his characters and their distinct struggles against the forces of their societies.
IN THE VALLEY
Stories and a Novella Based on “Serena”
By Ron Rash
224 pp. Doubleday. $26.95.
With “In the Valley,” Rash presents a catalog of broken people trying to survive beneath the weight of their self-abuse, often through drugs or alcohol — or just the abuses the world foists upon them.
In “Sad Man in the Sky,” a crumpled man approaches a helicopter operator and offers money to be taken up for a pass over a certain neighborhood. The man is circumspect in his reasons, and while in the air he requests that the operator hover over a house so he can rain toys from the sky upon children he loves but cannot see, like a kind of Santa Claus.
This is a bad idea for a number of reasons, and at first the pilot demurs, but after he hears the narrator’s reasoning — he frames his project as one of love and reconciliation — the pilot reconsiders. It’s not that it is not still a bad idea, it’s that it is a bad idea the pilot understands, and can even see himself in.
“Too many memories have gotten stirred up,” the pilot says, reflecting on the day’s flight, “including times I was in the air wondering if I’d ever see my family again.”
The power of Rash’s stories lies in these small moments of connection amid all the noise of rupture and heartbreak.
Rash writes with a direct precision that puts the reader at ease. Here is a storyteller who not only knows his characters, but knows all the details around them as well. Rash ends the book with the titular novella, based on his 2008 novel, “Serena.” In the novella, loggers in North Carolina struggle to finish a dangerous project on an unrealistic deadline. Rash maintains the novel’s linguistic precision, but the contrast to the even sparer prose of the stories that precede it makes the novella’s increased space and cast of characters feel somewhat unfocused.
THE AWKWARD BLACK MAN
By Walter Mosley
328 pp. Grove. $26.
The title of Mosley’s latest story collection, “The Awkward Black Man,” is both a spot-on descriptor and yet one that only hints at the broad range of people we find in the book’s pages. If Rash’s collection introduces us to broken people putting themselves back together, Mosley’s gives us an atlas of quirky Black men.
Reading these stories, you feel as if you’re sitting with a gifted storyteller while he spins yarns about the strange people living in his mind. The prolific Mosley delights in the wonderfully bizarre. In “Pet Fly,” Rufus Coombs confides his work troubles to his (yes) pet fly, Andrew. Uncharacteristically for this collection, the premise takes some time to unfold, and then the author doesn’t do much with it.
In “Cut, Cut, Cut,” Marilee Frith-DeGeorgio meets Martin Hull on a blind date. Like many men in the book, Hull is emotionally reserved, sterile even. He speaks of having been cheated on in a previous relationship with a detachment that borders on nonchalance. Martin tells Marilee he is a plastic surgeon, though his real interest is in neurology. He says things like: “Now and then I close my eyes and stop thinking for 10 minutes or so, but life is very short, and we have a duty to future generations to make this a better world. So I stay awake as much as possible trying to finish my work before the dictum of mortality claims my soul.”
When a detective approaches Marilee as part of an investigation into the murders of Martin’s wife and her lover, she begins spying on Martin, as a police informant. It turns out his secret is larger than Marilee or the reader could have ever anticipated. The same could also be said of the men throughout the collection: Each protagonist seems simple and often shallow on the surface, but as the story progresses he unfurls into greater and frankly breathtaking complexity.