The 10 linked stories of Barry’s first-rate debut capture the idiosyncrasies of an upstate New York backwater where social life revolves around Lucy’s Tavern, founded by the late Lucy Beech, who “loved live music and dancing and understood people who liked longing more than they did love.” There, a limited pool of regulars drinks nightly, has the kind of revolving recreational sex that creates complications for decades, and ruins its children: “You watch a kid like Ruby Plumadore, whose clothes never fit and who smells like cigarettes… get off the bus and… subtly gird herself to walk into her front door.” There’s Harlin Wilder and his twin brother, Cyrus, who are in and out of work, hung up on ex-wives and waiting for the next woman to roll into their lives when they’re not drinking or getting into fights. Linda Hartley, an advice columnist for adolescent mag Sugar and Spice and for Woman Today, battles her own demons; while Harlin’s ex-, Grace Meyers, still has good things to say about him. The situations are familiar, but Barry gets down to the grit of her characters and captures the plangency of a local bar that serves as de facto communal household.
In the 27 brief stories in German author Biller’s collection (his first to be published in the States, and magnificently translated by Bell), characters fall in love, have affairs, spy on their neighbors, break up and do everything in between, all of which is described with a mix of chic simplicity and Hemingwayesque poignancy.
In “The Mahogany Elephant,” a seemingly banal exchange between two reunited lovers leads to a crystallization of their relationship. In “Baghdad at Seven-Thirty,” two people making small talk at a bar come to reveal a complicated bond. In “Melody,” a troubled couple’s expansive romantic lives are distilled into just over two pages. Some stories disappoint, such as “In Bed with Sheikh Yassin,” about a justifiably reluctant bride who fantasizes about another man on her wedding day. Biller’s chief concernsâ€”fidelity and longingâ€”are examined from every conceivable angle, and the stories, short as they are, carry an unexpectedly powerful emotional wallop.