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New York Times
THE title story in this impressive and accomplished debut collection imagines the emotional ache of the doctor in Jonestown, Guyana, who discovered the followers of Jim Jones after they drank that infamous cyanide-laced punch. The doctor, now retired and back home in Texas, is dying himself (of cancer), but the memory of all those bodies -- Families. Limbs intertwined. Mothers sprawled over children'' -- has become ''the axis around which his life winds.'' In the course of things, Joseph Conrad is quoted, but the story is more original than that -- in its point of view, for instance.
In the Shadow of Our House is narrated by the collective ''we'' of the doctor's neighbors. (''If you had lived long on our street and drunk late at our parties,'' it begins.) The neighbors do more than the usual unburdening of themselves, so we learn a fair bit of their individual histories. But at the story's center is a hallucinatory scene in which the doctor dreams about confronting Jones, who can give no more satisfying an account of the tragedy than ''Words fail.'' ''That's it?'' the doctor asks. ''Words fail?''
And though we have the story before us to testify that they don't, Scott Blackwood seems to have placed it up front as a sort of disclaimer, a warning to readers about the inadequacy of language. Another story, ''Prodigal Fathers,'' underlines the point. Darnell, the father of the title, has been away from his wife and son for months, working on a movie crew. He comes home for Christmas three days late because he has spent the holiday with his lover. His son has guessed the reason for the delay, and when Darnell finally arrives, the boy asks him if he has a girlfriend. ''I tried to think of something to say,'' Darnell reports, ''words that would fall meaningfully into place, like in Scrabble. Single truths about relationships, integrity.'' But he can think of nothing but an obvious lie.
It is not only language that is failing in these stories, which are set in Texas among people whose marriages are falling apart and whose children are going astray. And though one story, describing a river that both erodes its banks and deposits silt to form new ones, notes that there is ''loss and compensation everywhere,'' it is difficult to find anything here but loss. Yet the cumulative effect is not entirely sad, perhaps because these stories are so honest as they capture the dapple of emotions and perceptions that cross the mind like sunlight and shadow on a river.
One of these perfectly described interludes comes in a companion story to ''Prodigal Fathers,'' told from the point of view of Darnell's wife, Kay. She is grieving over the death of their other son (indeed, Darnell's infidelity may be his own response to grief). Sitting alone in her car, drinking peach wine coolers, Kay has one of those moments, not exactly epiphanies, when, in the midst of intense emotion, the eye is suddenly caught by an inconsequential detail that becomes engraved in memory. For Kay, it is the sight of a woman in a red sundress talking on a pay phone, holding her little girl by the shoulders. As Kay watches, the woman begins shouting into the phone, the child breaks free and the woman's change spills to the ground. Kay longs to tell her that ''it would be all right, whatever had happened, though I knew it wasn't true. She would have to live without things. But knowing this wouldn't make it any easier.''
Kay may be wrong, you think as you finish the story, the last in the collection. For just as the act of reading this book disproves the contention that words fail, the characters in it manage to survive their losses. They carry on, perhaps destructively or self-destructively, and they never entirely succumb, are never frozen in despair. As Darnell says, ''For the most part, I think we do the best we can, with uneven results.''
Darnell's modest claim for our human strivings, though humbling, is right on the mark, as are these acute and nimble stories.