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What We Build Upon the Ruins: surprise endings, deft pacing, and too few complex women

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Giano Cromley’s first book of short stories begins with a quote from Cloud Cult: “When the angels come, they’ll cut you down the middle, to see if you’re still there.” It’s an apt quote for the collection, in which all 11 stories center on men and boys who are shown a piece of their true identity because of a crisis in their life—sometimes of their own creation. They are painful realizations, but also epiphanies that come with a tinge of hope: that knowledge of yourself can help make you better, no matter how agonizing the way you discover the information.

Cromley grew up in Billings and after attending Dartmouth College and working as a speechwriter for Senator Max Baucus in Washington, D.C., got an MFA at the University of Montana’s creative writing program. Currently, he lives in Chicago, where he teaches GED and ESL classes. Many of his stories seem inspired by his life—one about a boy fishing in the Yellowstone, another about an inner-city literature teacher who is searching for a missing student.

All of the stories are deftly paced and run as if on rails: The book is supremely readable and not a line goes wasted. Cromley’s strength is in creating worlds in just a few pages, efficiently setting up characters, plots and conflicts with no fat for trimming. Even though the book is a collection of disconnected short stories—save for three that appear at the beginning, middle and end—the stories nest well together, and the book can easily be read in a few sittings.

The weakness of the collection mostly lies in the stories’ endings. A number of the pieces have O. Henry-like surprise endings (which I won’t give away), while others have an ongoing gimmick: for example, one of the shortest stories is an online review for a vacuum cleaner that is really the story of a failed relationship. While there’s a place for these types of twists and tricks, they don’t feel well executed here, and all come off feeling corny or forced.

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One of the book’s best stories, “Eureka, California,” follows a man nicknamed Trigger as he is forced to confront his past six months after abruptly leaving town and starting over. The story moves well and Trigger feels very real: He’s a man with good intentions who can’t seem to stay on the straight and narrow or learn from his past mistakes. But just as the tale crescendos, a twist ending and an overly symbolic last paragraph knock readers out of the world and leave them wishing for a less structured and moralistic ending.

The pieces that are the most successful are the ones where Cromley lets the story, and not the storyteller, do the heavy lifting. “Ling,” about two friends who spend the night fishing, accomplishes just that, while accurately capturing the thoughts and feelings of a teen on the cusp of starting his own life. “Homefront” is also one of the more successful stories, in which a man returns to his hometown after the death of his mother and has to confront his estranged brother as well as his own past actions. These are tales where Cromley lets his characters learn and explore on their own without relying on heavy-handed symbols, surprises or sentimentality to induce emotions in the reader.

Another issue: The book lacks strong female characters. While the men in each story seem to live in complex emotional worlds, the women often only appear as naggers: people who are pressuring the men to be normal, to be responsible, to feel the right things. Literally, many women in the book spend their time repeatedly calling the men in the book, nothing more than voices, reminding them that their child is sick, or reminding them to buy a bottle of wine for dinner with friends. These women all seem cut from the same cloth: hardened by responsibility, representing social mores and completely unmoved by the men’s inner emotional struggle. Since we know Cromley is able to create complex characters, I hope that in his next book, he can do so with the women as well as the men. Cromley’s prose is clean and technically strong, reminiscent at times of writers like Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel or Cormac McCarthy. If he focuses on more subtlety and writes his female characters with more complexity, like Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguro (or almost any female author), his second collection could be truly notable. In fact, treating his female characters with more time and thought could even help solve his primary problem of overly wrought and forced endings.

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