Through eight carefully linked stories, Toni Graham depicts the rituals of small-town Oklahoma and how its inhabitants move forward through life with—or in perhaps spite of—grief. The stories in The Suicide Club each follow one of four suicide survivors: a man whose father swallowed pills; a mother whose teenage son hung himself; a woman whose boyfriend shot himself; and the survivor group leader, whose father asphyxiated himself. The group’s Wednesday night meetings are only a sliver of full and messy lives as the members work through addictions, infidelity, impotency, and questions of faith.
In the opening story, “God’s Playground,” Graham sets the tone for her collection. Honest and unwavering, she uses precise and darkly humorous language to reveal how loss affects the characters in their daily lives. In this story, Dr. Jane McAllister is haunted by her father’s death in the middle of the night and the middle of WalMart:
Now the store’s PA system blares forth: “Surprise Dad with new power tools for Father’s Day! Our biggest sale of the year is taking place right now!” Oh, sweet Jesus, next Sunday is Father’s Day. If Valentine’s Day was once the most painful day of the year, this has now changed for the worse. All one needs for a really, really swell Father’s Day is for one’s own father to have committed suicide. Not only is she reminded again, as she is in some manner every day, that she no longer has a father, but there are of course the unspoken words from her father’s grave: I’d rather be dead than stay alive for a daughter like you.
Readers unfamiliar with linked short story collections may be surprised that this is the only story that focuses on Jane as a protagonist, whereas the other characters receive two or three stories. However, because the stories are centered on the suicide survivors group, Jane reappears frequently, and sometimes in unexpected ways.
Each story successfully stands alone, and as testimony all had been published in separate literary magazines, such as Passages North and The Southern Humanities Review, before they were printed together in the collection. As with the best linked short story collections, the stories are ordered so that tensions rise and reach a climax just as a novel does.
The climatic and penultimate story is “Burglar,” which follows Slater as he balances regrets of his past with the marital discord of his present. His transgressions in a previous story, “Fubar,” further enhance the conflicts Slater faces. In one memory, Slater recognizes the first time he was aware of his father’s disappointment in him, shortly after Slater cried in fear of a Mr. Peanut character on the boardwalk in Atlantic City:
Later, back in the car, Poppy turned his face toward the backseat and said, “You need to toughen up, kiddo. Men aren’t afraid. Boys aren’t afraid of peanuts.” Slater can still see his father’s expression: he had the same look on his face as when he helped Rabinowtiz’s father pump out the septic tank at their fishing camp.
The collection is a winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, no doubt for the clarity of action and the complexity of characters. Many of the stories within the collection are divided into episodes of present action and memory, offering rich and in-depth histories of the characters. These characters and their struggles are palpable, revealing truths of reality in the way good fiction can.
With a small town thrum in tune with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and heartbreaking honesty paralleling E. J. Levy’s Love in Theory, Toni Graham’s The Suicide Club is an outstanding collection of linked short stories.