Baby’s on Fire: Stories

  • By Liz Prato
  • Press 53
  • 130 pp.

Raw, relatable characters make this collection of tales a winner.

Short stories have never interested me. I like books — big books that allow bounteous character development and a plot you ruminate over for weeks. If I were going to enjoy a short-story collection, I’d want it to be instantly engaging, character-driven, spare, and yet full of unspoken understanding.

Liz Prato agrees. Each of the 12 tales in Baby’s on Fire features characters who ricochet back and forth between the hang-ups of their world, full of self-doubt and angst. It’s a brilliant collection.

“Astronomical Objects” is a sexy, subtle story that revels in the carnality of a music reporter and her secret lover. “My plane takes off late. He was in the shower when I left. This is how we say goodbye. Kissing at the curbside is how others go. We do it with him naked and me dressed.”

In the briefest of conversations, the two realize their partners are also having affairs. It’s a beautifully eloquent partial sentence: “Is it because --?” But no, the reader understands the lovers are orchestrating their own demise, just as the reporter threatens her own marriage and career.

The title story involves a recent college graduate dealing with poor job options and depression. She mails her things to her mother, anticipating a move back to her family’s basement. But upon arriving in her hometown, she learns her house has burned down. She is suddenly without mooring in a world where you can wake up with nothing. As she watches a young family play in a pool, she realizes she’s a grownup and that the promise of a safety net is an illusion.

One of the most heartbreaking and haunting stories in Prato’s collection, “Minor League Lessons,” involves cataloging the mistakes you make in life and the subsequent regret that eats you up inside. In it, ballplayer Jason is on the edge of major league success when he blows it all up in a cocaine-fueled blitz.

Recently broken up with his girlfriend (she claimed he was “too dreary”), he now coaches a group of kids who don’t care much about the sport. Still, his spunky grandmother see only the best in him and holds out hope for his future success while simultaneously facing her own imminent death.

Baseball as a metaphor for life isn’t a new concept, but it works here without being heavy-handed. During an impromptu batting practice, Jason thinks to himself, “Take each pitch one at a time. What you’ve done before doesn’t matter. All that matters it this at-bat. I thought it was such bullshit. Of course all the ways you succeeded and fucked up in the past mattered.”

With its clarity, insight, and bare emotion, Prato’s collection is an excellent addition to the world of short fiction — and one with the potential to set my literary preferences on fire.

JR Scrafford is a senior review editor for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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