See You in Paradise: Stories

  • By J. Robert Lennon
  • Graywolf Press
  • 256 pp.

A collection of unconventional tales that tread on the paranormal.

Most of J. Robert Lennon’s stories in his new collection, See You in Paradise, are cool, masterfully executed, and told from a distance. Many of them reach into the paranormal world where this detachment serves a purpose: When a family passes through a magic portal in their back yard and travels to other times and places, or when Zombie Dan (who has been “revivified”) starts reading people’s thoughts, we don’t expect a personal connection.

Lennon specializes in this approach and handles it well, but I still missed the opportunity to get closer to these well-drawn characters. In “The Wraith,” for example, a story in which a man’s wife exchanges places with her doppelganger after an insane descent into self-destructive violence, Lennon keeps cool but captures us with his humor.

“There was one element in their lives that Carl hadn’t counted on when he married Lurene, a single wild card. That was politics. Lurene hated George W. Bush, utterly loathed him. This was 2005. She screamed, literally screamed, when she saw Bush’s face, which fortunately was not very often, because they had sworn off television news after the 2000 election, and because Carl got to the paper before she did each morning and was able to tear out any photos and throw them away. Lurene nevertheless often growled at the empty space Bush’s face had occupied.”

Lurene later swaps places with her wraith, and we’re never quite sure whether the ghost or the human is more real. Protagonist Carl is left “married to a pair of horny half-women,” which he decides is not really a bad way to live.

Lennon’s skill draws us into tales like this, but this story, like several others, tends to end lamely with such bromides as “the truth was always forgotten…history dulled and simplified until it didn’t resemble itself at all.”

Also a down note in this collection are “The Accursed Items,” 10 pages of clipped verbal imagery that are sometimes interesting, but out of place in a short-story collection. One of the better ones:

“Shoulder pads her mother tore from an otherwise stylish dress, recovered from the garbage and employed to fill out her bra while she dances to pop music in front of the mirror”

Lennon’s stories are mostly about desperately unhappy people, usually couples or families who undergo some otherworldly experience, revealing and usually increasing their desperation. I often got the feeling that he wants us to feel close to these characters, to experience their misery on an emotional level, but I did not — at least, not in the stories that contained elements of magic.

But two of Lennon’s stories are completely realistic, and these are by far the best. In “Total Humiliation in 1987,” we are pulled into the middle of a perfectly normal-looking family that is coming apart in awful ways. At their summer vacation cabin on Lake Craig, they discover a time capsule buried in the beach sand, and the bitter message left by the earlier family’s adolescent daughter reveals a different form of hell that mirrors and intensifies their own failures. We feel close to these characters and are affected by their misery.

Even better is “Ecstasy,” the story of a babysitter and an off-camera tragedy that makes us feel profound sympathy for characters we never meet. Lennon here writes with simple language, describing a fraught situation with sharp focus and urgency. We are compelled to confront a horror we can foresee but that is never shown. Lennon has chosen not to name his protagonist here, but just as “the sitter,” she seems frighteningly vulnerable. Even this excellent story, however, ends rather feebly.

Still, if Lennon had included more stories like these two, set in the realistic mode, he need not have bothered with so many paranormal side trips. See You in Paradise would’ve been stronger for it.

Phil Harvey’s stories have appeared in 15 magazines. His latest novel, Show Time, was released in May 2012.

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