If Dzanc books isn’t on your radar as a go-to press for outstanding collections of short stories, it should be. Once a year, for the past three years, a collection by Dzanc has blown me away. Lauran van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us was my gateway drug, and the way she combined the far-fetched and everyday made the collection one of my favorite books I read in 2010. In 2011, I read Knuckleheads, by Jeff Kass, laughing at the sometimes lunkish characters while shaking my head with recognition. So when I picked up Eugene Cross’s collection, Fires of our Choosing, I knew I was in for something good.
Cross’s book does not disappoint. Showing influences of Steinbeck and Dennis Johnson, Fires maps the lives of working-class men and women who often find themselves a dice-throw away from being down-and-out, problems with love, family, and alcohol complicating perpetual crises of the wallet and the heart.
It would be easy to call Cross’s characters losers, but only in the most literal sense: almost everyone in this collection has lost something or someone–a father, a sibling, a wife, direction, hope. In “The Brother,” a house painter haunted by his past is forced to give his girlfriend’s addict brother a job and a second chance. In “The Gambler,” a recent widower finds solace in the familiar circus of a local casino. “Harvesters” follows a man following the harvest, trying to win over a woman he has jilted before, and will jilt again, his departure as predictable as the seasons. If these sound predictable, they are anything but, and Cross continually wrong-foots readers, keeping them guessing until the last page.
Stories by Ron Rash and Bonnie Jo Campbell, who often cover similar, bleak ground, can act as a series of downward strokes when collected, which can be exhausting to read, but Cross’s stories are more varied, and Fires largely avoids this. Some of the most effective stories are the ones where Cross leaves behind the familiar and branches into different voices. “Rosaleen, if You Know What I Mean,” which chronicles a boy’s failed rebellion in the face of his dissolving family, and “Come August,” a brief story told as a second-person address that tells of a babysitter who finds her life irrevocably changed when she steals a few moments of sleep, are two of the most arresting stories in the collection.
Opening “Eyes Closed,” the story of a two-bit pool hustler hoping to pay rent with a big score, Cross writes that “Bars and pool halls were not places you went to turn your luck.” His characters know this, yet these are the places they are drawn to, where their luck changes momentarily before inevitably running out. These are the places in Erie, Pennsylvania, that Cross brings to life so well, the places his characters might find dignity and grace in the incremental victories gained against life’s uphill struggle.
Similar Reads: American Rust, by Philipp Meyer; Jesus’s Son, by Denis Johnson; Burning Bright, by Ron Rash; and American Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell.