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From Galveston to Philadelphia, Houston,New Orleans, Saigon, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., Bethesda author Karen Sagstetter’s new collection of stories, The Thing With Willie, unfurls the lives of two intertwined families in a very connected way. These stories reveal the interwoven lives of their characters, creating one of those imaginative wholes that we usually call novels.
The title story, the strongest, relates events concerning a poor man with a disabled baby son. Like all of these, it evokes a place and time; Sagstetter’s stories stretch from the dawn of the 20th to the 21st century. “Sapphire Street” spans the life of a middle-class Houston family, while “Letters Home,” about a translator for the U.S. military in Vietnam during the war, brings that miserable enterprise and the era it so scarred forcibly back to mind. “The word was that a third of the soldiers had tried heroin,” the narrator casually remarks. It’s with those kinds of touches that Sagstetter succeeds in conveying so much so quickly. Above all, what these stories disclose is the narrator’s clear, dry eye, but not so dry as to lack compassion for the tragedies witnessed.
Here, each story is, perhaps, a chapter, ending with “The Best Doctor” and the death of an almost 100-year-old African-American matriarch in Galveston, Texas. Though the tone is gentle, the truths presented are not: Unexpected things happen, and they kill people. This is best illustrated by the stories about Gulf Coast hurricanes, though in “Sapphire Street,” an aging shoe salesman, who has struck up a friendship with a college chum, discovers abruptly that she has died. It’s not just the sudden unexpected loss that sears his life, but the attendant appreciation and gratitude for still being alive. Though deliberately, deceptively prosaic, Sagstetter’s stories are subtly and thematically unified by the perception that life is a gift, one that can be snatched away in an instant, one that remains a miracle for as long as it lasts.
Sagstetter never clobbers her readers with this aperçu, but rather comes at it obliquely, crabwise, by piecing together bits and patches of her characters. “But Louis could never concentrate enough to mediate. His mind jogged back and forth in time, from mockingbirds to dumping trash at the store, to Abbey’s father in Congress to peeling cucumbers—without pattern or purpose.” Thus we are introduced to the shoe salesman’s mental life and how he hopscotches into a friendship with an old college acquaintance and makes his desultory way through that until her abrupt demise. It’s all as ad hoc and disjointed as his thinking, but this, Sagstetter shows, is how life and thought often are, drifting along until boom, it’s over for someone critical in the personal landscape. There’s the sudden pang of grief and loss and then, a little here, a little there, life resumes.