These Things Do Happen
-Book Reviewed by Rachel Wooley–
These Things Do Happen, the debut collection by Ian Anderson, consists of five short stories set (mostly) in Baltimore. In four of the stories, the narrator is a male who seems to be grappling with his place in life. Characters in all of the stories face disappointment. Someone – a mother, a father, the niece for whom they provide, a partner in a failing relationship – has let them down. But there are no grudges, no righteous anger – only attempts to understand, and to survive the aftermath of that disappointment. In the title story, a store owner must decide what to do when his little grocery store – already failing against the chain stores that have moved into his neighborhood – is completely ransacked. In Baltimore Burning, a teenager deals with his mother’s attempt to burn down an entire city in retaliation for the wrongs she feels she’s been dealt. In Pass the Potatoes, Please, a son tries to obtain some closure after his estranged father commits suicide in a hotel in Topeka, Kansas. The collection doesn’t feature much in the way of happy endings, but the conclusion of each story feels right.
Anderson expertly creates atmosphere. Through his narrators, the reader gets an incredible sense of place – the dirt and desolation of Pimlico racecourse on a non-race day; the quirky characteristics of the aging row homes. But even better, perhaps, are his descriptions of the people. Consider Ann, in Stakes: “her nose was large and flattened like a piece of mishandled fruit,” Anderson writes. “She had the face of a pugilist, but her eyes were light.” Likewise, in Baltimore Burning, a teenage son, nicknamed Pea Pod, describes his mother: “I could see how even some of my male teachers looked at her, like she was the last stop for a train destined to head off a cliff. I almost hated her for being beautiful.” These and other details that Anderson chooses to share about his characters’ personalities, their homes and habits, are revealing in unusual ways, embodying the odd, unpolished charm that Baltimore is reputed to have.
This unique assortment of characters drives the collection. The plot points in each story, though sometimes a little crazy and certainly peculiar to the characters who experience them, are not completely unbelievable (dare I say “only in Baltimore”?). But Anderson uses his characters’ distinct contexts to create a universal empathy, allowing readers to relate to these people. You’ll want them to be “happy and free” from whatever they think holds them back (to paraphrase Pea Pod in Baltimore Burning). Each character exhibits impressive authenticity and humanity. According to the author, the characters in this collection believe that their best days are either behind them or are yet to come. Readers will connect emotionally with the struggles that are portrayed, hoping the characters don’t give in to resignation, but instead that they find those best days, either again or for the first time.
Post Photo Courtesy of www.goodreads.com, Book Cover Design by Ian Anderson