States of Mind

Off the Bookshelf

The Source of Trouble; $10 paperback A Wild, Cold State by Debra Monroe

Simon and Schuster, $21 hard judge a story by the distance it transports me from my world; I clocked some miles in the stories in Monroe's two books. In The Source of Trouble, we never leave the south central United States, but the landscape is nevertheless entirely foreign to me, a bleak plain littered with the basest emotional landmarks - obsession, self-destruction, cruel infidelity, and overwhelming despair.

The women, the women... well, I just want to shake them, show them a picture of a place where feeling good doesn't always have to hurt. And the men, who follow their lusty peckers around in a weak-willed daze, choking on their every word, drinking away emotions in a La-Z-Boy in the basement, those men... well, I just want to separate them permanently from their single-minded, one-eyed companion. No one marries for love, children are abandoned with witless grandmothers, a poet risks everything to have her toes sucked by a man she finds mildly repulsive, and a gaggle of eighth-grade girls snipe and fight with a cynicism normally reserved for those who have had decades to develop it. And yet, skittering through this woeful world is the faintest glimmer of tenderness and hope, enough to make me realize the characters are at least searching for the source of their troubles, a monumental sign of character in this crowd. Whether or not they intend to do anything to change things once they find the source is another matter entirely.

In A Wild, Cold State, a title describing both the physical location in Wisconsin as well as the emotional terrain, Monroe's characters are no less pathetic and tormented by troubles than those in her first collection. These are folks you'd never pick as friends, but they always find a way to pick you. And despite their considerable failings - lack of ambition, crippling choices for partners, drug addictions, and pure slovenliness - they are friends. So, you stick around long enough for the brief and infrequent glimpse into their brighter side. Like Peter, love-struck and lonesome, who finally allows Louisa off the pedestal he's plunked her on. Or Toni, who shakes free of a wandering, indifferent husband, only to hitch up with a wandering, idiotic boyfriend, and - when you've almost given up on her - dumps the lout, buys a better bra, gets a good haircut, and moves from fry cook to bartender. Best of all she allows herself to dream of escape: "I wanted to fly past this cold place. Which is impossible - flying. But not impossible to imagine. The loft. Whir. Big wings."

At moments like this, you're glad these losers sought you out and made you get to know them. - Suzy Banks

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