Red Light Run

In a sharp narrative debut of connected stories, Baird Harper (winner of the 2010 Nelson Algren Literary Award) captures the ethos of fictional Wicklow, Ill. It is a wrung-out town where the abandoned steel mill and burned-down trailer park have been turned into a "postapocalyptic paintball battlefields." The formerly bustling town center now consists of "a single intersection where a motel, a pharmacy, a bar, and a Planned Parenthood faced off at a stoplight." Its only economic beacons are a riverboat casino and a prison. Hartley Nolan is about to walk out of the latter early from an eight-year sentence for DUI and vehicular manslaughter. Despairingly drunk after a failed intervention for his alcoholic wife, he ran a red light and killed Wicklow's favored young mother Sonia.

Shifting back and forth in time, the stories in Red Light Run deftly portray the antecedents and aftermath of this careless mistake. No one escapes. Hartley endures a dysfunctional wife and scatterbrained mother. He is stalked by Sonia's husband and her childhood family caretaker, out to avenge her death. As if that is not enough, he's also pestered by Sonia's grieving sister, Allie, who has a fitness-driven husband pushing self-help books on her while "standing in the living room in capri pants drinking a kale shake, looking healthy and organized to such an alarming degree that Allie was beginning to view it as an act of aggression." Harper adeptly captures the details of small-town life--like the brined Thanksgiving turkey sitting in the fridge, "a great shivering load bullying the orange juice and milk containers." In Harper's Wicklow, we find strikingly rendered broken people searching for glue to put their lives back together. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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