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Oblivion

Carolyn Kellogg hosts the literary blog "Pinky's Paperhaus," at www.pinkyspaperhaus.com .

DESPITE the ebullience of its title, the stories of “Yes, Yes, Cherries” eddy around forlorn characters and their thwarted desires. The Angelenos in Mary Otis’ debut collection are the grandchildren of Nathanael West’s mob, anger and violence dissipated, left empty, bewildered. But where West looked away with dread, Otis casts a direct stare, free of judgment.

Otis’ characters inhabit unlovely corners of the city -- barbecuing at a dingy condo, dallying in a Van Nuys parking lot, renting an apartment underneath a hillside garage and having sex in a basement storage closet. Two teens climb a huge cement tank in the middle of Hollywood, unseen. These are invisible people in pockets of the city that go underchronicled.

The book is framed by four stories that focus on Allison (notable for consistently failing to connect), from her isolated adolescence to her rudderless adulthood. In the first story, set in Massachusetts, her own actions surprise her; self-knowledge extends only as far as knowing she wants to move to California and marry a carpenter. She manages the former, but little more. Her not-carpenter husband says she “has stretches of bafflement.” In stories peppered with disaster, Allison loses two jobs, discovers her marriage is in trouble and seeks help from a discount therapist. It cannot end well.

Allison is the book’s narrative heart, aimlessness be damned. Her trajectory, such as it is, is propelled by the book’s other stories, in which flights of imagination are the closest anyone gets to escape.

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A bookstore clerk would rather envision a happy future with a stranger than face her date’s disinterest. A woman’s affair cools as she develops a strange tenderness toward her lover’s wife. A mother sees her daughter sliding into macrobiotic oblivion, and no sacrifice can slow her descent. A teenage girl leaves a cultish Christian sect and, floating from a deadbeat druggie boyfriend to the fringes of the Russian mob, begins to create a new moral code. And a small boy watches his father hustle and fail to flow.

What ties them all together is Otis’ strong voice, which is jittery and electric, unsettling like the Santa Ana winds that background the story “Welcome to Yosemite.” The omniscient narrator follows closely over the shoulder of each protagonist, bringing the same eye for detail from one story to the next. This narrator, though, rarely jumps inside the characters. Staccato details fall one after another. Emotion is indicated but not revealed. As a result, at an essential level, these stories fail, like Allison, to connect. Ultimately the people on the page are unknowable, existing at a remove, as if seen from a passing car.

Yet Otis’ gaze lingers. She dwells in the harsh sun of a Nordstrom parking lot, glimpses an imaginary verdant world through a child’s eyes. When Allison, in the final story, stretches into some humor, and even some hope, it’s a welcome relief. Perhaps the electric winds can carry her and the rest forward after all. *


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