Thursday, February 8, 2007

BITTER SWEETNESS

Stories by North Carolina writer deliver a heartfelt punch in the gut

Posted on Thu, Feb 8, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Don't Make Me Stop Now: Stories
Publishing House: Algonquin Books
WorkNameSort: Don't Make Me Stop Now: Stories

America has few writers who understand in their bones the way our teenage years bubble into adult life. Michael Parker is one of them. In his past three books, the creative writing professor and PEN/Hemingway finalist has shown he remembers the dangerous ditches along the highway to adulthood.

In his latest collection of stories, Don't Make Me Stop Now, Parker offers up 12 terrific tales about the vagaries of love. All the characters in these stories are frozen in time. Memories from the past, often their teenage past, have snagged them. Parker catches his cast in this state of entangled melancholy and cups the heartache they cannot admit to possessing.

In the opening story, 'What Happens Next?â?� a tortured man tells a new lover his deepest, darkest secret: He accidentally caused the death of his grandmother. It is a test to see how she reacts. 'Muddy Water, Turn to Wineâ?� depicts a romance that begins with a one-night stand and moves quickly to unexpected territory when the couple winds up on the road to a funeral the next day.

Many of these stories feature hit-and-run relationships, but Parker is so good at entering his characters' heads we still feel we know them even if those involved barely know one another. In 'I Will Clean Your Attic,â?� a woman whose husband has recently left her hires a workman to clean out the lout's things. The laborer turns out to be a recovering alcoholic who needs as much help as she does. Parker captures their distrustful dependency brilliantly:

'She knew how reformed drinkers could turn sanctimonious about everyone else's drinking habits. Like divorced people she knew who became suddenly and implausibly knowledgeable about other people's marriages, as if they could sense from a brusque gesture everything that was hidden from view.â?�

Parker's characters are often cynics masking as realists, which leaves them wide open to being blindsided by their own hearts' needs. 'Love, too, seems to survive best if parceled out in manageable increments,â?� says the barfly narrator of 'Go Ugly, Early.â?� But by the story's end he is feeling needy, defensively protective of a woman he met over drinks.

This is a boozy book, but not a sentimental one. Parker understands that the heart, like the liver, contains a record of our previous excesses ' and that we reach a point where turning back isn't possible. Many of Parker's characters go insane with this knowledge. A lovesick man in 'Right to Remainâ?� torches his house; a spurned young lover funnels her rage into a college term paper in another story.

Not all of Parker's efforts go off like clockwork. Some of his stories revolve around gimmicky scenarios. (For example, the story that takes the shape of a term paper never transcends its device.) At times there is too much effort to be contemporary: There are so many musical references in the book that one could almost pull out an iTunes playlist from what he cites. But that doesn't matter. As this imperfect, anguished little book reveals, all you need is one truly heartbreaking romance in life to be haunted until the end of your days. And I'd say this book has three.

(John Freeman is the president of the National Book Critics Circle.)

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