- - Thursday, July 5, 2018

GOOD TROUBLE: STORIES

By Joseph O’Neill

Alfred A. Knopf, $22, 176 pages

All the stories gathered in Joseph O’Neill’s “Good Trouble” seem to be set in bright sunlight.

This is not actually the case. While the Tuscan sun shines in “Goose,” and “The Trusted Traveler” occurs in a Nova Scotia summer, the more typical settings are apartments, hotels, airplanes and murkily lit coffee shops and bars. Even stories set in sunny states such as Florida and Arizona, take place in the rain or at night.



So the sunshiny feel is an impression. Its source is the clarity of the language and the fastidiousness of the syntax.

The first story “Pardon Edward Snowden” describes such devotion to the right words in the right order. Poet Merrill Jenson invites other poets to sign his “poetician” asking for a pardon for Edward Snowden. Recipient Mark McCain is enraged by its inept rhymes: “Snowden” with “pardon.” And “pardon” with “Rose Garden.” And “Rose Garden” with “nation.” What’s more, since a poem lives for itself, a poem as petition is a non-starter. “You could no more agree with a poem than with a tree, even if you’d written it,” Mark believes.

Poetry grapples with “language at its hardest,” and lately Mark has taken to the easier task of writing prose dribs and drabs that he calls pensees. Compared to poetry, they come trippingly from the keyboard, and he enjoys writing them. But the news that the “poetitian” is going to be printed in The New York Times stops him in his tracks. His name has never appeared in The New York Times. He’s tempted therefore to sign. But in less than half an hour he writes a poem different from his earlier work, “Meditation on What it Means to Write?”:

“Problem ‘meditation on’ is a cliche. ‘What it means’ is a cliche. / The very notion of problem, colon, is a cliche. / ‘The very notion of’ is a cliche. / ‘Cliche’ strikes one as a cliche /As does ‘strikes one.’ / And ‘As does.’ / Ditto inverted commas. / Ditto ‘ditto.’

Mark doesn’t sign the poetician, and that affirms — to himself as well as to others — that he is a poet. Several other stories also sort through the ways their protagonists, usually men, identify themselves.

In “The Poltroon Husband” the eponymous husband has to question his courage in defense of his home. In “The Sinking of the Houston” a devoted father vows to punish the man who mugged his teenaged son. He wants to seize his best opportunity, but when it arrives a Bay of Pigs anecdote from a casual acquaintance changes his mind.

In “The World of Cheese” Breda is mystified when her son first insists that his baby son should not be circumcised according to his mother’s Jewish tradition then reverses his opinion, and confects a reason to cut off all relations with Breda. She, too, it turns out, can alter her behavior dramatically.

This narrative pattern — the disconcerted protagonist trying to adapt to new circumstances or uncertainty shapes most of these stories. Epiphanies end them. Nothing new there.

But for readers not seeking freshly turned narrative ground, a pleasure of reading this collection is watching a skilled writer at work using fine-tuned language to pinpoint states of mind and feeling. Another pleasure is the occasional startling obiter dicta. Breda’s son is full of them. So is Johnny in “Ponchos.” He ends his funny peroration on the theme of the male struggle to ignore sexual temptation with “We should get credit for all the women we don’t sleep with.”

In dinner in “The Trusted Traveler” boring Jack rivets attention by announcing “I just got this letter from the clinic demanding nine hundred dollars for my sperm.” This farcical dinner party segues to somber comedy at the end of the story, which shows the aging dinner-party host parading his new-found knowledge of geological change.

Some other endings are more tangential, less potent. Nonetheless “Good Trouble” is a chewy collection of stories, often elegant, often challenging, and always entertaining.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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