In this linked short story collection, the inhabitants of a Pennsylvania steel town grapple with aging and the shifting rhythms of their community.

Ganaego is a typical mill town in Western Pennsylvania, where the steel jobs have disappeared and taken much of the rest of the local economy with them: “The closure of the steel plant had, to be sure, clobbered all of Ganaego—one more casualty in the hollowing out of America’s industrial heartland.” Even so, American lives roll on, much in the way that they always have. Maddy Schoolcraft, a divorced community college administrator and a woman whom nobody takes seriously, is convinced she is responsible for the car accident that killed one of her son’s high school classmates. As she copes with her guilt, she must also assist her aging, philosophical father, who is going blind. The obese and aging Max Fischman operates a jewelry and appliance shop in Ganaego’s failing commercial district. When his window is smashed in the middle of the night and his inventory stolen, the police chastise him for his broken security system, but Max already has an idea who might have committed the crime. Pleasance Stubbs is a schoolteacher in her mid-50s resisting her doctor’s orders to retire or face crippling damage to her hips while dealing with her long-furloughed husband’s insistence that they pay for the suit of a recently deceased millworker. The 12 stories span the period from 1971 to 2015, and characters from one tale will often pop up as minor players in another. As a cycle, they offer a series of windows into the small, domestic lives of the town’s inhabitants as things change—or don’t—in the fortunes of Ganaego.

McKean’s prose is measured yet probing, revealing the hidden theatricality of even the collection’s minor characters. Here, Maddy describes the movements of her father’s eye doctor: “Barking out his conclusions in acronyms to an assistant who typed his comments into a computer, the doctor would strap on a helmet with a light attached—much like, Maddy would think, what a spelunker might don before descending into a cave—and gaze through a scope into his patients’ eyes.” A melancholic specter haunts the collection, and yet the author largely resists the urge to dwell in nostalgia or sentimentality for the town’s bustling past. Instead, a quiet fatalism imbues each of these tales, in which the inevitable march from youth to old age and death is mirrored in the plights of each of his protagonists. The episodes McKean chronicles are mundane, and yet in them, he discovers the perennial American drama of hopefulness giving way slowly—and then all at once—to disappointment. Standout pieces include “Dance of the Little Swans,” about a woman with a failing dance studio; and “Death in the 5 and 10,” about a librarian who learns of the tragic death of a child. But nearly every story will succeed at striking something in readers’ hearts.

A masterful assemblage of tales that illuminate life in a flagging American town.

Pub Date: today


Page Count: 222

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: July 8, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2020

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