EVERYBODY LOVES SOMEBODY
By Joanna Scott.
260 pp. Back Bay Books/Little, Brown & Company.
JOANNA SCOTT'S new story collection, "Everybody Loves Somebody," boasts all the searing, raw eloquence of her previous books, with observations that boldly sacrifice prettiness for accuracy. A mother whose children are missing laments, "if only she had taken a knitting needle and stitched them to her, skin to skin." A supercilious, "reptilian" maître d' "smells faintly ... of bus exhaust." A drunk old lady has a "fishnet face."
The best of the bunch is the opener, "Heaven and Hell," set at a seaside wedding in July 1919. Here, as Scott moves among various images a boy and his dog on the shore; the bride's estranged father locked in a bathroom; a bee hovering around the bouquet; a toddler playing with a cicada shell the story achieves a tidal rhythm. Throughout, the newlyweds embrace, like the lovers on Keats's Grecian urn: "There was something willfully permanent about them as they kissed, as if they were trying to turn themselves into statues." Crises that threaten to shatter the perfection are averted in a seamless ebb and flow.
But Scott overuses this brink-of-disaster device. As the collection progresses, her ominous tone, initially tantalizing, becomes a tedious tease. In the title story, a man speeding home through the Catskills after too much to drink doesn't hit a deer and doesn't crash his convertible, despite foreshadowings of both. His testy encounters with a belligerent waitress and an odd pair of auto mechanics also go nowhere.
On the other hand, in the story "Stumble," where Scott takes misfortune to an inordinate extreme, we could do with less relentless punishment. It's unpleasant enough when Ruth, a lonely, "easy" girl in 1927 Manhattan, submits to a tryst with her boss, only to catch him leaving money for her before he departs. But then Scott forces Ruth to walk from Canarsie to the Village through a surreal landscape of swamps and drainage ditches, looking "more like some monster from a picture show than the fancy gal she'd imagined herself to be earlier that same evening."
The problem is that Scott's talents as a wordsmith, when overindulged, can undermine her storytelling. Here the prime example is "Or Else," the novella that serves as the penultimate story. Its structure, four versions of the same tale, renders the teenage heroine unconvincing, a conspicuous creation morphing at Scott's whim. And the free-associative patter of the narrative using non sequiturs and dialogue without quotation marks or attribution is disorienting and precious: "Bev, phone's for you! What? The whir of a fan. The roll of a carousel horse. The swoop of a swallow."
Yet the collection ends, as it began, on a strong note. "The Lucite Cane," like "Heaven and Hell," features multiple plotlines that overlap in a satisfying way. The story's jump-cut narrative finds its central character, elderly Abraham, moving slowly, linearly, as the rest of the action whizzes by. Most hearteningly, Abraham is someone we come to care about: "At least an old man can reward himself with a tepid beer after enduring a long morning alone in his apartment. He can hope that tonight he'll win at bingo. He can think about his wife in heaven."
In this final story, Scott argues, "You watch a movie on TV, you want the guarantee that by the end it adds up to something." The same could be said for a piece of writing. In this regard, "Everybody Loves Somebody" only occasionally succeeds.
Sarah Saffian, the author of "Ithaka: A Daughter's Memoir of Being Found," is on the writing faculty of Eugene Lang College at the New School.