You know those books of short stories where every one of them has a character that overcomes a major crisis, and the story ends with puppies and rainbows? This isn’t one of them.
As a newspaper editor, Craig Lancaster has had plenty of close-up views of the grittier side of life, and those views show through in Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, his new book of short stories. He addresses themes like death, homelessness, domestic violence, divorce, self-mutilation, cheating spouses, crime, suicide, and demotion at work, and he pulls no punches. The stories aren’t all depressing, although some of them definitely are, but they are all thought-provoking.
The theme of the book is followed only loosely. This isn’t one of today’s short story collections where each story shares setting and/or characters with all of the others. This led to some publishing challenges for Lancaster, as publishers really want the tightly-tied “novel in short stories” format.
It’s hard to say much about the stories themselves without giving away the endings. For some authors, spoilers would ruin the book entirely. For Lancaster, it would detract from the ending’s effect, but I would read the stories even if I knew the endings, because his writing is good enough to hold my interest. He builds characters with depth, complex characters that make you want to find out what happens after the end of the story.
The first story in the book, Somebody Has to Lose, was a great choice for an opener. Paul Wainwright, the coach of a high-school girls’ basketball team, has an incoming freshman named Mendy who just might be able to break the team’s ten-year championship drought. Shades of Blind Your Ponies? No, Lancaster takes his story in a whole different direction, as Coach Wainwright has to deal with hard choices about what’s best for the girls on his team (as opposed to what the town wants him to do), and what’s best for his family. This is the longest story in the book, and it showcases Lancaster’s skill as a writer. He drew me in to the plot and the characters. When I finished the story, I just had to keep going and read the next one. As I said, excellent choice for an opener.
Some of the stories were downright depressing (e.g., She’s Gone and Sad Tomato: A Love Story). Some were uplifting (Comfort and Joy ends the book perfectly). Some just made me sit back and say, “wow” (Star of the North). It would be fun to see some of these stories stretched into novels (Alyssa Alights, for example). And if there are any disgruntled old-school journalists reading this, step away from your computer, grab a copy of the book, and read The Paper Weight. Oh, my goodness!
The book is set mostly in Montana, although most of the stories could easily be transplanted elsewhere. There is little in Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure that readers in other locales wouldn’t get.
I read this book while on vacation, and I had some trepidation about it. It seemed a rather heavy read for vacation time. Luckily, that wasn’t the case. While it is a literary work that deals with serious themes, there isn’t an ounce of pretentiousness between the covers. It’s absorbing, attention-grabbing, and well-written. Comfort and Joy is downright amazing. I enjoyed the book, and I think others will enjoy it, too.
We don’t have the schedule set up yet, but Lancaster will be coming to Red Lodge Books for a signing and a talk, most likely after the Christmas holidays. Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure officially releases on December 6, but you can order it on the Red Lodge Books website right now.
NOTE: This review is based on an advance copy, and there may be changes before its scheduled release on December 6, 2011.