“We are sprinkler kids,” Kimberly King Parsons writes in one of 12 fantastic stories in her new collection of enchanting yowls from a big and wild Texas. “[S]hoeless and soaked through, blistered and noisy, playing duck-duck-brick while some window mother — not ours — yells for us not to get concussed. It is boys versus girls. ... Our teams are pink and peeling, kids willing to do whatever it is we say.”
Inside, the men are bad but not all bad. They drink and hunt and have not just one secret bag of cocaine, but another. There is poverty and violence and harsh weather. The kids and women endure these men. The women drink too. Their jobs are terrible, with awful bosses and worse lobbies in over-chilled buildings, with seashells under glass and throw pillows the color of vomit. The Texas air crackles. Bugs slink through the cracks in thin-walled houses on the edges of expressways. (“If it’s pissed off and lives in a boot,” one narrator boasts, “we’ve got it.”)
Parsons’ is an exhilarating, enchanting, charming and irresistible new voice. Imagine the punk rock stylings of the criminally underappreciated Jeff Parker. Add the full-throated roar of weird Karen Russell, plus the deft sparkle of Denis Johnson and all of the gesturing and spooky direction of Carmen Maria Machado. This is real-deal fiction. You’ll want more.
Parsons loves language. Behold her describe the tip of a makeup brush as being a “tiny doe-foot wand.” After work, the telemarketers finish Bud Lights, “mangling a bassinet of happy hour mozzarella sticks.” Parsons is also a wiz at structure — tastemaker Gordon Lish is thanked in the back pages — with stories that go long and deep, narratives braided, balanced by a few pieces that are only a few paragraphs of tightly coiled howl.
But, oh, her characters.
They ache. They love. They suffer. They encounter this weird world and their solutions aren’t always good, involving as they do alcohol and eating and riding the bus in circles. In one rollicking story, “Glow Hunter” about two teens who love each other but can’t, the braver girl, Bo, suggests they find some magic mushrooms. The ideal setting, she assures her smitten one, is “inside a tent full of stuffed animals, on a raft at sea. ... But a car works, too.”
The two best stories might be the bookends. The first, “Guts,” is a gripping and stomach-turning portrait of a woman dating a medical student who “has a voice that sounds like everything will be okay.” But her relationship to bodies gets complicated. She asks him if there were any “hot cadavers, any beautiful bodies who donated themselves to science.” He assures her no. “I should love my body more,” she thinks. When she cracks, when the gin and beer and cupcakes don’t fill the holes up enough, she shows up at the hospital. In a break room, he examines her, lovingly, as best he can.
Somehow, no matter how unhinged everyone gets, they’re still appealing — even in the last story, “Starlite.” It’s a humid, torrid but oddly sexless tale of an almost-affair in a crummy hotel room a few blocks from the office.
Occasionally a debut collection lands with such a wet, happy thud that you immediately start imagining the rest of the writer’s long career. It’s good luck that in this case Parsons is slated for at least one novel, with another one after that. Her characters are, after all, so real you’ll want them to escape, to get out of the arid wasteland of Texas. But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the very idea of escape, our yearning, is exactly what these characters want us to realize they don’t need and in any case won’t get.
This is a book for the lonely, for the losers poised for more — it’s a celebration of and a deeply felt meditation on the injustice, cruelty and a million private horrors endured by the weak and the unloved. It’s not just that Parsons’ people are doomed. Even as they squirm and melt and seize, you love them, and root for them. How hard has Parsons herself lived? It doesn’t really matter, but from whatever good guts, she’s conjured up a sweet séance.
“Black Light: Stories”
Kimberly King Parsons
Vintage: 224 pages; $15
Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”