Most of the characters in Lucia Nevai’s second collection of stories want to lead normal lives, but they feel that normality has eluded them somehow, either through their bouts with addiction, childhood traumas, adulterous trespasses, nuclear family struggles, or episodes of mental illness. While Nevai believes in the depth of their collective aspiration (and convinces the reader of it, too), she makes clear her own conviction that they are chasing a chimera. In Normal—as in most of modern life—maladjustment is the norm, and whereas such paradoxes are often meant as backhanded queries about what’s wrong with the world today, Nevai does not particularly care. Her interests lie where they should: in her characters’ most immediate and beguiling predicaments.

Unlike some flesh traders writing today, Nevai does not use her characters to smuggle protest agendas. The author of Normal realizes that even borderline personalities have to pay their rent, and that their laundry piles up at roughly the same rate as the rest of ours. Occasionally, Nevai cannot resist fetishizing her characters’ already conspicuous frailties, but what Nevai underscores in her more triumphant moments is that the line separating the maladjusted from the highly functioning is an insidious fiction. And at odd moments, the misfits prove themselves the most functional and best adjusted of everyone.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more affecting than in Nevai’s deeply felt title story. The heroine of “Normal” is a recently rehabilitated addict whose father visits to see his newborn grandson. Just before his arrival, Rae’s born-again husband Chris has literally wrestled his deranged brother into a mental institution. The windowpane they’ve smashed is now hidden behind calico curtains Rae has hung for the occasion, and it is just this sort of apt domestic detail that lends Nevai’s work compassion and credibility. Rae more closely resembles a nervous newlywed than a 12-step success story. She does not expect her father’s congratulations for being clean and sober; she only hopes that the curtains will somehow “soften” their time together. But her father—who looks and dresses “like a Sears model”—cannot survive the visit without a drink, and soon grandfather and grandson, husband and wife are driving to the local bar in search of Rae’s father’s preferred Glenlivet scotch.

The marvelous thing about “Normal” is this: Nothing too disastrous happens in that bar. Things don’t go so well, either, but honestly, who could expect them to? Rae does not choose this moment to confront her father about his drinking or “tough love” or distant parenting—does not share her supernatural cure, because unlike her Seventh Day Adventist spouse, who has “the American Jesus look, West Coast style,” she has no cure, though motherhood is probably a factor in her recent happiness. Rae named her infant son after her previous lover, whose spirit appeared to her in a pancake house after his fatal overdose. This fact brings her odd comfort, if not of a kind her husband’s church could sanction.

When Chris offers to take Rae’s father to the Adventist chapel, he declines. “Next time. Rae leaned forward from the back seat, to see if he meant it. She couldn’t tell. She hoped he did. She hoped very much he wasn’t just saying that. She hoped things between them could be normal.” As her father ends his visit, Rae concludes that “[a]ll along, she could have used more of this. Better not to think about that.” Given the chance, Rae accepts the small, out-of-court settlements of the soul. As any sane person does.

While relative sanity is the central concern of these 12 stories, “Normal” appears oddly late in the sequence, in the last of three mysteriously arranged sections. The best rationale I can offer for their organization is that Nevai’s work gradually pulls into sharper and sharper focus. Still, the reader may not need to participate in this process, and I am tempted to suggest that one should read the collection backward (though the debut piece, “Monsieur Allé,” would hardly provide the satisfying close that “Thanksgiving with Dorrie & Heck” does). Yet the first four stories (Part 1) are not adequately auspicious. In them, the varieties of human dysfunction seem too precious, too small compared with Nevai’s later stories.

In the fourth tale, “Close,” Nevai invests altogether too much in the viewpoint of Jorie, the therapist who has been called home from a Vancouver suicide conference to bury her brother. “Families with teenage suicidals were Jorie’s specialty.” Honestly, what reader wouldn’t find her pride creepy? The story is not surreal enough to merit the cutesy tone (even if it did suit the New Yorker’s needs), and Jorie’s in-flight insights into her own grief are almost as limited as her appeal. But it is difficult not to be jaded about therapist characters these days, when they are so often used as an easy phenotype of emotional intelligence.

Nevai’s strongest characters know what they know, innately, even if they lack the vocabulary to describe it in clinical terms. The narrator of “Me, Gus,” a serial adulterer from Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., is one such brave invention. Gus compensates for his diminutive stature and crippling claustrophobia with a machismo that borders on the pathological. He lies to his long-suffering and overweight wife, cusses out his family, and calculates what his mistress costs him per “stuffing,” but he remains likable—even lovable—just the same, maybe because he is such a sucker for typography that he will brave the Lincoln Tunnel to study with a master typographer. A lowercase “g” can enrapture Gus more than any woman. The most fleshy of Nevai’s characters have similar idiosyncrasies, which are a breed apart from quirks— idiosyncrasies that come cheap.

It is a mark of Nevai’s ambition that the cast of Normal is such a motley bunch. Included are a cookie executive from Ann Arbor, Mich., a Haitian child welfare officer in New York, an old drunk in Louisiana, a teenage Methodist from Des Moines, Iowa, and an aging flower child—now a mother—in Cambridge, Mass., some of whom are more fully realized than others. And despite Nevai’s geographical range, most of these stories do not occur in any distinct landscape or region.

Domestic dramas often succeed when the characters cannot see an exit, when the most pressing crisis fills the horizon. Though this strategy backfires in a piece like “Silent Retreat,” where a grieving mother imprisons herself in her comatose daughter’s favorite ashram, it is used to surprising effect in “Release.” There, a prosperous father tries to collect his troubled daughter from Boston Psychiatric Hospital. “This is not why I went into business for myself, this is not why I worked nights and weekends, so she could live in a place run by the city,” he tells the resident psychiatrist.

The more fortunate of Nevai’s characters find both relief and release from their circumstances. Even with considerable handicaps, they are able to imagine clear futures for themselves. At “Quinn’s Wedding,” the bride’s older sister Cecilia tries to survive this family encounter without seeking cover in drink (her old addiction) or drugs (Quinn’s present solution); religion cannot offer them the same solace that it does their oldest sister, who looks “like a monk in drag.” But the sight of her incestuous father—”immaculate, twinkling, critical, two-dimensional and utterly corrupt”—kissing the bride presents a harder challenge. “The kiss could not possibly be lasting this long. If it were lasting this long, the minister would stop him. The groom would stop him. The people in the front pew would stop him. But he seemed to know what he could get away with.” While Cecilia manages to keep her peace, she cannot keep it later on, when she sees her father dancing close to her only daughter.

Like the pubescent narrator in “Belief,” Nevai’s characters want a blueprint for living. When the nurse at the Methodist camp sees Maureen’s self-inflicted scars and slashes, she tells the girl, “‘This is beyond Methodists.’…Her expression was one of such total sorrow and concern that I realized I did need help. I felt abject despair. I was also completely earnest. I remembered the words in Power for Living—this was the only state that produced results.” Eventually, Nevai’s most interesting characters find themselves with only a work in progress, with some conclusions drawn but none of them binding. This gives them the power they need, which is enough to keep the reader engrossed.CP