Winner of the 2017 Orison Fiction Prize, the debut story collection You or a Loved One by Gabriel Houck is sharp, witty, insightful, and truculent. Exposing the underbelly of a post-Katrina Louisiana full of deadbeats, bayou, and folks just trying to survive, the stories swivel between interlinked-stacked flash fiction, script-like treatments for short films, and interior examinations of beautifully flawed characters. The linking thread is that nothing is spoon-fed. Most conclude with blunt endings that leave room for speculation. With vast un-signaled leaps in narrative time and reader-please-speculate-where-to-connect-the-dots, Houck has created a collection where saying less means more, where the randomness of life can be examined, where layers build to great pay-off.
The eponymous opening story "You or a Loved One" charts the life of a call-center worker and concludes with an unexpected mind-blowing twist. No spoiler here, but the reader follows the protagonist through a mundane life that seems to be decelerating into fragments caused by the cold corporate world around her and with a minor shift in focus, signaled by background noise, the whole world collapses. Not only the protagonist's world but the reader's as well. Houck captures those unbelievable moments one realizes will be in tomorrow's news feed. A world in which, if you add up all our actions, you may predict the accumulative outcome, in hindsight, yet going through the motions of everyday life—not returning a phone call, misplacing empathy, calling in sick—can lead to the horror that changes everything forever. This opening story is a masterpiece.
Throughout the collection, a mixed bag of characters deal with unexpected situations and nothing feels gratuitous. There is a story exploring adolescent sexuality. There is a reluctant Spiderman hired to entertain at a birthday party and unhinges. The aftermath is explored in another story. There are missed connection stories and often a secondary character continues the narrative into another adventure that keeps the pages turning and the reader wondering what will come next. How will this all be resolved? Spoiler alert: like life, little is resolved.
There are bumbling cops, ex-con brothers, survivalists, and a ladies’ bridge club, and a Hollywood film production comes to town. One story is played through security footage and interrogation transcripts. The you-decide endings are fodder for conflicting interpretations. Yet, what remains consistent is the prose clarity: minimal and lyrical. In “The Wick,” a story about a pilot and a hurricane told through a series of dream-like memories, the penultimate section offers a fine example of the clear, powerful prose:
That night in bed, he looked back at those hours following the storm as if they’d known the water was coming. Before they’d shuttered the windows, before he’d sat with Hugh on the roof and watched the exodus of the willing and able, he’d felt the wall of rain in its way. Every minute of their lives had been a story of that creeping tide, of its inevitability, of its terrible slowness.
You or a Loved One is T.C. Boyle meets Richard Ford with a sprinkling of Jack London set on the Gulf Coast. The randomness of daily life stewed in the hot and humid builds suspense, awe, and a fictional truth that often feels more believable than what is labeled news, as in this, a final excerpt, from “The Known Unknowns”:
Tomorrow New Orleans will bulldoze one hundred vacant homes. Three people will be shot, and a car fire on the I-10 onramp will stop traffic from mid-city all the way uptown, a line of honking cars that he will bike past on his way to work, still sleepy from making it home late, his mind still on the blackness of the water at sunset, the canoe still atop their battered station wagon, duckweed and a film of sulphurous mud still caked to his shins. She will walk the dog, past the neighborhood trees that survived the storm, past the toy figurines from her son's toy chest that she's left in their branches as talismans, and home again to their sun-washed kitchen for tea, a check of the weather, and a long, unquiet silence.