In Laura Kasischke’s feverish short story “Melody,” a man on the brink of divorce attends his daughter’s birthday party, where he wrestles down an onslaught of belligerently antisocial thoughts and impulses of the kind usually associated with that discreet euphemism anger-management issues.
In the lava spill of rage incurred by his wife’s rejection, thoughts and memories swirl in the husband’s mind just begging for a violent response: her sexual desirability, her absence of malice, the strategic self-preservation of a woman who, as a schoolgirl, would deliberately get herself knocked out of a game of Scramble so she could sit it out in peace. “This had amazed him,” writes Kasischke in a pointed metaphor for their dissolving relationship, “the idea that someone (even a girl!) would so willfully and cannily buck the system by choosing failure over injury.”
Throughout her alarming and gorgeous collection of 15 short stories, “If a Stranger Approaches,” Kasischke artfully plays with the line that divides private fantasy from public acts. In the thematically related tale “Somebody’s Mistress, Somebody’s Wife,” a litany of grotesque tragedies unfold around a woman following her breakup with her married lover.
For starters, the lover’s son hangs himself in a park, the cut-up body of a neighbor is found stuffed in a toilet tank, an ice-cream truck driver accidentally mows down his son. The gruesome events are relayed with a matter-of-factness that only amplifies their absurdity: We wince, we chuckle, and we back-track a paragraph or two to see whether we skipped a sentence that indicates the woman is dreaming or, better yet, blathering from the confines of a straitjacket.
Many of the characters inhabit the kind of delirium experienced by people pushed to the very edge: the dementia-like confusion of an old man confronted by ghosts from his nefarious past, the dissociative remove of a adolescent girl being gang-raped, the meltdown of a fed-up mistress whose wealthy ex-lover could easily have afforded diamond jewelry but instead chose to give her a hemp bracelet studded with a toenail, “one of his own, on which he’s painstakingly painted the silhouette of the summit of Mount Everest against a light blue sky.”
Kasischke nurses a soft spot for transgressive souls, as exemplified in two of her best stories, “I Hope This Is Hell” and “If a Stranger Approaches You About Carrying a Foreign Object With You Onto the Plane.” In the former, a teacher who abruptly left her husband for an intellectually inappropriate lover contemplates burning her bridges once more, prompted by a tragic accident. In the book’s title story, a nonprofit administrator waiting to board a plane takes leave of her senses when she agrees to carry a wrapped package for a handsome young man who accosts her at the gate.
The woozy beauty of Kasischke’s prose keep the occasional bursts of social consciousness from curdling into the didactic. Her empathy for the recession’s mortgage-challenged multitudes mixes with rage at the indifferent real-estate vultures circling for a bargain in “The Foreclosure,” wherein a woman struggling with her husband to make rent wanders by her dream cottage and is invited in and given a glass of water by the owner. A few days later upon hearing that her hostess had just lost her home she throws up a protective shield: “This was none of my business. . . . Some sort of horror that occurred to desperate people.” And Kasischke leaves us to shudder, discomfited by the chilly understanding that we could be next in line.Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at jan.stuart7@gmail