Oddballs With Problems

From David Foster Wallace's invented affair between LBJ and a male black aide to Stacey Richter's date with Satan, a good deal of '90s short fiction glittered with high concepts—the sitcom pilot as literature. Terence Young's debut story collection, Rhymes With Useless, solves the high-concept genre's inherent superficialities by wedding imaginative scenarios to a minimalist voice and attention to detail best exemplified by older writers like Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver.

The characters range from a former construction worker who has his hair cut by Joni Mitchell to a retired English professor who inadvertently inspires one of his students to get a sex change. But instead of making easy jokes at their expense, Young makes the reader feel implicated in his characters' dilemmas, even their pain. In the title story, about a married couple's sex life ruined by the wife's conversion to veganism, the husband-narrator notes wryly: "No meat, no eggs, no dairy. No sex wasn't part of the plan. It just happened. These days we look forward to a nice baked potato with a splatter of homemade salsa." We can enjoy the cute sarcasm, but we also feel a sense of uneasy recognition of our culture's fit-living, fit-eating obsession documented in such a small, domestic space.

Unlike Carver, Young's minimalist style doesn't read like a tic; it's a fitting stylistic response to his subjects. His use of the quick, clipped poetic metaphor captures the disjunctive associations made by the eight-year-old girl in "Yellow With Black Horns," whose mother's voice reminds her of "walking on the lawn." And in "The Berlin Wall," the author's use of a fragmented narrative neatly parallels the sense of loss felt by a mother deprived of her kids because her husband got caught selling pot out of their home.

Toward the end, Young's gloomy tone, repeated in story after story, starts to leave the reader numb. Still, his sharp renderings of oddballs in distress remind us that stories can do more than amuse with clever conceits—they have the power to disturb us, to bump us out of our comfortable grooves.

 
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