Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In his debut story collection, Adam Haslett transports readers into the hearts and minds of characters who find themselves at profoundly life-transforming crossroads. In "Notes to my Biographer," we meet an aging father whose mind is consumed by what he believes is a beautiful, creative fire but which the rest of the world -- especially his gay son -- knows to be mental illness. In "The Good Doctor," a psychiatrist's determination to help a reluctant patient rejoin the world after the death of a child forces the doctor to examine his own needs and motivations. In "Reunion," a young man compelled to make the arrangements for his own impending death writes poignant letters to the father with whom he will soon be reunited. And in "Devotion," the upcoming visit of a former lover, combined with a secret kept for a lifetime, momentarily upsets a delicate balance in the lives of two siblings.
Haslett's exceptional and elegant command of both language and subject matter imbues his stories with a fervent honesty and powerful emotional intensity, moving readers from the suburbs of London to a Los Angeles beach community, from the desolate American West to the cliffs and cathedrals of Scotland. He paints arrestingly precise portraits of his characters, meticulously invoking the humor and pain that help us face important moments of decision and change.
(Summer 2002 Selection)
The characters in this début collection, many of them gay, many of them depressed, are plagued by the sense that they once had the temerity "to spear mediocrity in the eye." Now, dismayed by the niceties of everyday life, they compulsively scrutinize the people around them, as if this could teach them how to live. These muted stories are driven by the moments of crystallization that result: a boy suddenly knows that his brother is going to die; a lonely teen-ager finds relief as the target of a classmate's violence; a self-absorbed, manic-depressive father discovers that he is unable to say goodbye to his son. All this can be a little gloomy, but Haslett is an eloquent, precise miniaturist, and his characters' struggles with their own assumptions collectively provide a fascinating snapshot of life during the era of Prozac, when new ways of thinking about emotion have forced us to adjust our notion of identity and even, perhaps, of grace.
All the characters in Haslett's debut collection of nine stories are estranged. Four protagonists suffer from schizophrenia or depression. A young boy disturbs his family with the power of precognition. Three primary characters are gay men alienated from their families. And one story concerns a psychiatrist who feels "like a sponge, absorbing the pain of the people he listened to." Haslett records the pain of his characters, asks us to absorb it and presumably aims to enlarge our sympathies. The best stories feature "strangers," the delusional or the repressed elderly. The weakest dramatize the angst of "familiars," Salinger-sensitive youths. In "The Storyteller," a despairing man gains solace from making up stories for a dying boy. Reading Haslett's book may not give similar comfort because, like the moribund boy, most of his characters have no hope. One who does, a clinically depressed man who throws away his psychiatric case file, travels to see an old friend, who is now a grave digger. It's that kind of collection. Not every reader will care or dare to enter Haslett's sometimes melodramatically painful world, but the book welcomes the courageousand the estranged.
In this affecting debut collection, Yale Law School student Haslett explores the complex phenomena of depression and mental illness, drawing a powerful connection between those who suffer and those who attempt to alleviate that suffering. In "The Good Doctor," Frank, a young M.D., goes out of his way to discover the origin of his patient's illness, only to learn of both her untreatable pain and his own fears and regrets: "The fact was he still felt like a sponge, absorbing the pain of the people he listened to." In "The Beginnings of Grief," suffering becomes a way of healing when a teenager coming to terms with both his homosexuality and his parents' sudden deaths seeks connection wherever he can find it, even in the pain inflicted by a classmate's violence. Often, Haslett convincingly interweaves the perspectives and lives of seemingly disparate individuals. In "The Volunteer," a teenager's awkward incomprehension in the face of his first sexual encounter bizarrely coincides with the breakdown of a schizophrenic woman he visits after school. Not all of the stories are charged with this kind of emotional complexity, however, and some tend toward the sentimental, as does "The Storyteller," in which the clinically depressed Paul, who feels himself to be nothing but a burden to his wife, Ellen, rediscovers his vitality in a chance encounter with an elderly woman and her dying son. Though the thematic similarity of many of the stories dulls their startling initial impact, this is a strikingly assured first effort. (July) Forecast: A blurb from Jonathan Franzen is particularly apt, since Haslett's eye for contemporary detail and talent for capturing complex emotional states makes his work resemble that of the author of The Corrections. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
In almost every one of these stories, the main character is suffering from some serious problem. Some of these problems are mental conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or suicidal thoughts. Other characters suffer from the crush of life's pressures: being a lovesick teenager, having AIDS, or taking care of a terminally ill child. Haslett writes of these characters with great compassion and empathy and seems to understand them from the inside out without ever being maudlin. Their difficulties with dealing with the world, given their situations, are the core of the stories. Some of the characters succeed and others don't, but they all strike a note of familiarity, as if they are people we might have met somewhere, but never really got to know. Haslett opens them up and shows us what makes them act the way they do and gets into their inner core. Some of the stories are particularly good, such as "The Volunteer," which is able, in one story, to get the reader to understand and empathize with both a teenage boy and an elderly woman. Haslett brings their worlds together, which makes each of their lives richer. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Anchor, 240p., Ages 15 to adult.
Those setting collection policy in public libraries are often forced to base their decisions on genre alone and will buy a detective novel, for instance, at the expense of a collection of short stories, especially one by a first-time author. Haslett's debut shows what is wrong with this approach. Courageous and compelling as any in today's fiction, the despairing characters in these nine stories are all related to someone who has left or will leave them, usually owing to mental illness. In "Divination," for instance, a sensitive boy reflects on the precise moment when he became alienated from his family. In "Notes to My Biographer," the narrator, in a burst of manic impulsion, decides to visit a son he has not seen in years. His irascible sense of humor propels the story until we learn that his son treats his inherited disease with medication that the father won't ingest; reconciliation is only possible if the son stops taking his. Such uncompromising and realistic representations of depression and its symptoms are commendable. Too often, the sufferers' loved ones are depicted with lugubrious sobbing, but the narratives move forward with few detours, and readers will turn the pages accordingly. Strongly recommended for mid- and large-sized public libraries and academic literary collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/02.] Edward Keane, Long Island Univ. Lib., Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
There are some spectacular moments, and also several inexplicable miscalculations in this extremely uneven yet unquestionably promising debut collection of nine stories by Yale Law student Haslett. Most of Haslett's characters are silent sufferers or unrequited lovers who live out lives of silent desperation unrelieved by full connection with others or disclosure of their innermost secrets. This is particularly true of stories that focus on gay characters, such as an orphaned high school boy powerfully attracted to a surly, violence-prone classmate ("The Beginnings of Grief"); an unmarried brother and sister who have loved and lost the same man ("Devotion"); and a terminal AIDS patient whose carefully planned withdrawal from job and relationships ends in (harrowingly described) surreal dementia ("Reunion"). These are edgy, disturbing explorations of loneliness that don't quite work-as are "My Father's Business," a mock-documentary look at a bipolar patient with a curious philosophical bent; and "The Volunteer," an initially gripping account of the relationship between a lonely elderly woman and the effectively motherless teenager who bonds with her that falls apart into inexcusable contrivance. And yet Haslett's riskiest, most far-reaching pieces are his best. "Divination," about a private school student who has inherited his father's unwanted prophetic "gift," grates expertly on the reader's nerves. Even better are "The Good Doctor," in which a callow physician's efforts "to organize his involuntary proximity to human pain" are unsettled by the story of a luckless family's destruction by economic failure and drug addiction; and "The Storyteller," a hypnotically strange amalgam of Chekhovand Beckett, about an American in Scotland torn between suicidal guilt over his lingering depression and its erosion of his marriage, and his compulsive intimacy with a stoical old woman and a dying boy: it's one of the finest, and most unusual, stories of recent years. Not by any means the book it might-perhaps should-have been. But don't overlook those three terrific stories.
“Spectacular. . . . You should buy this book, you should read it, and you should admire it. . . . [It] is the herald of a phenomenal career.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Extraordinary. . . . Frighteningly tender. . . . Displays an order as natural as a tree branch in winter—lithe and achingly austere.” —The Boston Globe
“Haslett possesses a rich assortment of literary gifts: an instinctive empathy for his characters and an ability to map their inner lives in startling detail; a knack for graceful, evocative prose; and a determination to trace the hidden arithmetic of relationships.” —The New York Times
“Fascinating. . . . Haslett is an eloquent, precise miniaturist.” —The New Yorker
“Elegant. . . . Invigorating. . . . [Haslett has an] assured, almost democratic empathy for his admirably varied characters. . . . These are graceful, mature, witty stories.” —San Francisco Chronicle