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Dangerous Places

Fiction by Perry Glasser

Review by Alex Myers

This volume, which won the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize, features six pieces that bring the realities of human nature into focus. It is the realities, not the dramatics, that Glasser writes about. His stories have familiar surroundings, familiar people, and are written in prose that is a flowing, melodious tune -- one you could hum.

Opening the collection is a novella-length story “An Age of Marvels and Wonders,” which features a retired businessman, Bob, with macular degeneration helping a single mother start a house-cleaning business. For all that, the premise is quite normal. The plot moves at a rapid pace, driven along by Raylene’s, the single mother, relentless determination. In this story, as in the others, Glasser meticulously creates both foreground and background. Take, for instance, Beth Ann, the checkout girl at the supermarket, who, at the start of the story, has “seen from the vantage point that is Register 4 all life has to offer . . . customers are spittle afloat in the clear pool of her existence.”

Even as the story mostly orbits around Raylene and Bob, Beth Ann crops up on several occasions, becoming pregnant and finally noticing her customers, or as Bob puts it, he has “achieved visibility.” There is, on the surface, nothing remarkable about this interaction, yet it gives the story texture; Glasser’s attention to the minor characters, noting their words, dress, and action, adds depth to the primary plot.

The other pieces in this volume measure up to the high standard of the opening story. In particular, “The Veldt,” which concerns a middle-aged man just laid off from his job, climaxing in a scene in which a younger man cuts him off, taking a parking space he was waiting for, does a remarkable job for taking a realistic scenario and intensifying the meaning. Samson, the man who has been laid off, is surrounded by the banalities of life, like high blood pressure and a wife who makes him eat healthily: “poached and snotless eggs quiver on [his] bacon-free plate.” But he is also, as a leadership trainer, aware of himself in a psychological and evolutionary sense, able to gauge his flight-versus-fight reaction, knowing that “his instincts will kill him,” that as much as he loves greasy foods, “you cannot cheat McDeath.” ”The Veldt” develops a whole new layer of meaning as it engages with this evolutionary language, until finally, Samson confesses his fears to his wife and they, together, accept ”these truths: Keep silent. Keep together. Seek shelter. Run close to the earth.” Glasser writes not just about these characters or this situation, but creates a wider philosophy.

Even the college-age narrator of “Fishhook,” a n’er-do-well student who has been ordered by his father to take up summer employment at Roger’s Sporting Life, shares in this tendency to create profound understanding from the simple facts of life. Glasser makes a convincing voice for this character -- as he does for the others in this volume -- describing his plight: ”But my monomaniac father calls up his old buddy and zap, here I am, snared in Roger’s Sporting Life. You go, Dad.” Even as Glasser maintains this sarcastic adolescent voice, he still plumbs the depths. The narrator watches a shoplifter abscond with a bunch of merchandise and reflects that “at the same time he is being robbed of maybe a hundred dollars worth of junk, Roger the success sells a $1,100 stationary bicycle guaranteed to make you sweat and go nowhere.” These are stories that point out life’s essential truths.

There are no duds in this collection; it is a well-deserved prize winner. The only spot of unevenness that I felt was in the volume’s other (almost) novella-length story, ”Jody’s Run.” This piece, about a young woman who meets with one of her father’s former girlfriends, is separated into five distinct sections. The structure of the story casts a lot of the plot in the past, and the retelling often ran flat, taking the momentum out of the piece. I am loathe to criticize the story too much, however, because of its marvelous central image, which spins out metaphorically into the rest of the piece: the wheel of death. A former circus worker gives the main character this advice as she relates the time she was once strapped to the wheel and found herself unable to look away from the knives being thrown at her. That’s okay, she says, “Every woman is a target . . . you may as well keep your eyes open. Take it all in. No one gets more than one chance on the wheel.” It is a wonderful metaphor for fate, deftly handled throughout the piece.

Glasser has put together an excellent volume. This was a collection I had a hard time setting down, and I expect I will return to it in the future.