Karin Lin-Greenberg’s collection, Faulty Predictions, winner of the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, wonderfully captures the moments when characters begin to see beyond their preconceptions into a fuller view of their lives and others’. The moments themselves are both large and small—ranging from a high school student’s suicide to a sister and brother’s unsuccessful shopping trip for a wedding dress—but in each, the characters emerge, for better or worse, understanding something new about themselves and the world around them.
Many of the stories in this collection deal with what it means to be smart—book smart, street smart, people smart, and so on. In “Editorial Decisions”—the opening story and one of the strongest—a group of editors at a high school literary magazine, known at least to themselves for their superior intellect, use what social clout they have to keep a boy from their club, exercising the same kind of exclusion they’ve felt from others, and when the boy takes drastic measures in return, they have to examine what it means to hurt someone else, an emotion no amount of book smarts can outrun. “This was the angst, chaos, and brokenheartedness of our favorite poems and stories coming alive right in front of us, and it made us uncomfortable and sad. And finally, for once, we were speechless.”
Another strong story, “Late Night with Brad Mack,” is about a college boy, Spence, who goes to visit his semi-successful father, a talk show host in Los Angeles, only to spend the night in a hospital waiting room as the doctors repair more than his father’s broken ego. It’s a wonderful story highlighting Lin-Greenberg’s talent for understanding and perception. The characters Spence encounters are both who he expects and not those people at all—the loudmouth assistant who looks after Spence’s father; the golden-boy actor aware of his deficiencies; a father who is more than his on-air persona and a checkbook, although he is these things too—and through his understanding of other people’s complications, Spence recognizes something about himself and kindness.
Another of the collection’s strengths is its wry humor, perfect for the characters who provide humor even if they don’t mean to, such as Pete the grouch in “The Local Scrooge,” meeting his daughter and granddaughter at O’Hare:
Wendy waited for Pete at the luggage carousel, the baby slung in some sort of flowered sack across her chest. Pete wanted to ask Wendy if she’d mugged a hippie to get that contraption, but before he could say anything, she shouted, “It’s Grandpa!” She jumped up and down, and Milo jiggled a bit, and Pete ran to them, afraid the baby would drop out of the sack, and he put his hands under the fat curve of Milo’s back. He thought how much the hunk of baby felt like the hunk of pork shoulder he’d held up in the supermarket the other day, had cradled lovingly for a few moments before remembering the list of foods his doctor had told him a man his age should avoid.
Sometimes the humor arises from the situation—a pack of drunk college boys who bring a pig on a public bus, or a nineties-era high school organization for people of mixed ethnicities, run by a white woman because she needs more school service. One of the planned outings for the Half and Half Multicultural Club is the “Things Inside of Other Things” event at a local nursing home. As one of the students explains,
It’s a food event. We’re in charge of samosas. Rigoberto is in charge of empanadas. Lily’s making dumplings. At the last meeting we were talking about the commonalities between cultures, and we noticed that most cultures had some food item that was wrapped in a crust of dough. So we’ll make these things and then bring them to the nursing home to share with senior citizens.
Her sister responds, “What’s Mrs. Cook contributing? What’s a white-person thing inside another thing? A Hot Pocket?”
A few of the stories seem to have shallower revelations for the characters, or metaphors that sometimes feel a bit too on-the-nose. In “The Local Scrooge,” a man holds on to his reputation as a curmudgeon despite the realization that life can be joyful. In the title story, two elderly women dress as ghosts, only for the main character to realize, “We both carried ghosts with us—everyone our age did.” The most extended metaphor is in “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes.” Miller, an outsider, moves to a small town and opens the Brilliance Café, constructing the pizza parlor with steel-and-glass windows, which the townspeople find pretentious. Miller digs in his heels regarding the windows, despite the problems they’re causing with the locals and the wildlife, and at the end of the story, this glass world crashes down around him both figuratively and literally.
That’s not to say “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes” isn’t a pleasure to read, or is unsuccessful. Although the decidedly constructed quality of its metaphor can be seen on one level as a weakness, it also works in the story’s favor at other levels, hearkening back to such distant forebears in the genre as Nathaniel Hawthorne. So much of contemporary fiction deals with the unexplainable or the random in life, and by contrast, Lin-Greenberg’s stories remind us there are edifying lessons to be learned from the routine lives we lead, and help us settle into the understanding of how much we have left to learn.
Faulty Predictions, by Karin Lin-Greenberg. University of Georgia Press. 192 pages. $24.95, hardcover.
Erin Flanagan is the author of two short story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press: The Usual Mistakes (2005) and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories (2013). Her fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, The Missouri Review, The Connecticut Review, the Best New American Voices anthology series, and elsewhere. She’s held fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ conferences, and this summer served as faculty at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.