Therapists would have a diagnostic field day with the cast of Holiday Reinhorn's debut collection, Big Cats. Some characters have anger management issues; others are too sizzled by grief to see straight. Substance abuse lurks in the collective background.
But as anyone who's been analyzed knows, identifying a problem sometimes just makes it worse. And so one after the other, the Big Cats cast pinwheels toward crack-ups, knowing all along that their triggers have been set off.
After an earthquake rattles his place of work, the hero in "Get Away from Me David," an alcoholic bank manager, starts to see visions of his dead wife. Hearing his sponsor tell him he's not alone doesn't help.
David is not the only damaged soul here trying to get by on compromised means. "My Name" features a Vietnam vet who embarks upon a relationship with a catatonic woman. The narrator of "Seashell" minces through the days, knowing deep down that his developmental disability cuts him off from the world. Sadly, these are the most well-adjusted of the lot.
What, exactly, is appropriate about turning a dead child's room into a shrine? wonders the grieving mother in "Good to Hear You." In "The Heights," a tipsy woman swerves into another inappropriate story about her husband's philandering. Her social gaffe is made all the more cringe-worthy by the fact that her husband is sitting right next to her, incapacitated from a stroke.
Unlike David Foster Wallace, who sometimes sneers at the loners and misfits he brings to life, Reinhorn treats her characters with fairness and dignity. She avoids describing their ailments with Excessive Capitalization, nor does she coat them with a blanket of irony, allowing the problems to rise to the fore.
Although Reinhorn saddles her big cats with big problems, she also leavens the rodeo with big-time humor. If you don't laugh out loud at least once, there's a chance you do indeed need medication.
But not all of Reinhorn's stories strike the right balance of humor and cynicism, and a few downright bellyflop. "Golden Pioneers" and "Good to Hear You" both unfold in a removed first-person that makes it difficult to tell whether you're supposed to care about the narrator or the protagonists of her stories.
This is a minor goof, however, in a very promising debut. When Reinhorn is on -- which is most of the time -- she can spin a tale so strange and singular it has a magnetic warble.
Were it not for its cutesy title, the lead story "Charlotte" would be a pitch-perfect riff on the casual brutality of teenage years. And "Get Away From Me David" just might be the oddest story to appear between two covers since George Saunders' "Civilwarland in Bad Decline."
Read these stories with a squinty eye and an open heart; just don't expect to be unaffected. Cart Big Cats onto public transport and you might resemble one of its characters, laughing at something imaginary. Or, in some cases, crying.
-- John Freeman
Big Cats: Stories
by Holiday Reinhorn
(Free Press: New York)