These 29 incidental anecdotes (ranging from a few paragraphs to an equally few pages) show Agee’s literary agility. Though the author rarely offers any sort of resolution, her images are mysteriously evocative. In “Kenya,” a dentist chats to a patient whose mouth is full of spiky hardware; in “My Last Try,” a woman idles her car in a closed garage, waiting for the circulating CO fumes to do their worst, before deciding that the effort required to seal the door and do the job properly is just not worth it.
Broken Heart describes a slow-motion Middle America, yet one that’s populated with sympathetic, observant characters. Kennedy’s death is mentioned only as a chronological landmark for the unwanted pregnancies of two vomiting college coeds, marriages inexplicably sour as conversation is mistaken for argument, and children are sent as punishment to the Jesus Barber Shop for combo haircuts/Bible-thumping sessions held by a proselytizing, “nastily Christian” proprietor. No story here seems directly related to another, and nothing particularly spectacular ever happens—although the final entry, “Mustard,” brings an escape. Packing her pickup truck with everything she owns, including her grandfather’s ashes and the title’s .38 special, our heroine makes a break for it. With “all of Dwight Yoakam’s sad-ass songs bleating away,” she abandons her cheating husband after “trying to wring some more out of that tired t-shirt we called our marriage” and realizing that there is more to life than purchasing bigger and bigger TV sets.
As the narrator hurls her grandfather’s urn and the memory of her errant husband into the Gulf of Mexico, Agee leaves the rest of us with the tools to continue as best we can. We take the keys from the ignition of the car and clean up the Oreo halves because, as one pragmatic character says, “We get a lot of field mice in the winter, and I just didn’t want them eating all that chocolate. It’s poisonous for most animals.” Agee’s tales don’t have much narrative drive, but they take a clear-eyed look at matters of the heart.