Kooky but sensitive, unhurried yet compelling, “The Inland News” proves the standout story in John Brandon’s sprightly collection, “Further Joy.” This “News” keeps you sitting up alertly even when all that’s going on is a noncommittal talk between estranged lovers.
The rebuffed boyfriend rises to halting eloquence, as he lays out the sort of hard bargain a person must strike once they leave adolescence: “The only thing to do . . . is to be a good person and let the moments unfold.” Then he adds, realizing most people yearn for more drama: “I know you don’t want to hear that.”
Now, as for drama, “The Inland News” also features a murder mystery. What’s more, the detective’s a psychic, and when this woman gets to the bottom of the bloody business, she handles it surprisingly.
Indeed, just about all of the 11 wry and observant stories in novelist Brandon’s debut collection depend on some Hitchcock-style MacGuffin. The book’s opener, “The Favorite,” concerns gambling on high school football. Another plot turns on a young woman gone missing, another features recurring shark attacks — and these are the more ordinary dangers. This author also enjoys an occasional touch of fantasy, such as alien abduction.
Yet the abduction story, “The Midnight Gales,” eschews spaceships and ray guns. Rather, in a nondescript town, folks settle for small blessings. They realize that the aliens, or whoever they are, always carry off everyone in a home, and so two sisters long at each other’s throats move in together. Despite their antipathy, neither wants to be “left behind.” The bizarre renews the commonplace, reinforces its strengths, in the forge of “Further Joy.”
Till now, Brandon has worked in a longer form, though his players, typically living on the margins, and their landscape haven’t changed much. Brandon has a fondness for scuffling singles not quite grown up and for rundown American mall-lands. His third novel, the highly-regarded “A Million Heavens” (2012), took place on the outskirts of Albuquerque, while “Further Joy” is set, by and large, in the Florida beyond Disney World, underfunded “regular Florida.”
One of the novel’s protagonists is a grief-stricken girl in community college, the only kind of college she can afford, and one of the plotlines entails messages from the dead. Neither of these elements would be out of place in the stories — though the new book tends more to realism; the author’s retrenching — and Brandon has continued to hone his ear for the poetry of American talk.
At times it seems like the only good fortune these characters can claim is the gift of gab. Consider the middle-aged woman whose rental car, one endless August, founders in the sand of a Florida beach. “Beads and feathers were dangling in her hair. She said this was the last summer she was going to be sexy. She was glad it was lasting forever.” Lines like that resound with hollow laughter at how any sort of “satisfaction . . . begins rotting after a week.”
Overall, Brandon’s side-of-the-mouth palaver turns the collection to a balloon ride, more than worth the fare: The style is the uprushing gas, and the people are the saggy bundles of ballast.
Most of those people turn out to be women, and “Further Joy” deserves praise for this. The psychic of “Inland News” may finger the murderer, but she’s no simple detective heroine. She doesn’t need to speak with the dead so much as with herself to get over her crippling self-doubt.
Nearly all these pieces are distinguished by how well, unlike Freud, this author knows what a woman wants. Indeed, though the title story does without a narrative (as do one or two others), instead creating a community portrait, no piece of that portrait glitters like the girls: “One of the girls had once hated her freckles, and now was proud of them. She relished sitting under her parasol at the beach. It was glamorous, not being tan.”
The longest fiction, “Palatka,” develops two complex feminine personalities, both adults, though still young, and then loses one of them when she never returns from a date. The other, Pauline, arrives in time at a hard-earned understanding of the risks some people take, and this understanding reveals the sorrow in all the compromises at which these stories arrive. “When she opened herself up to danger,” Pauline realizes, “it was in the name of chasing joy.”
John Domini’s latest book is a selection of criticism, “The Sea-God’s Herb,’’ and he has a story sequence and a novel coming out soon.