The Emerald Light in the Air: Stories

It's been 14 years since Donald Antrim published his last fiction work, The Verificationist. Unlike his novels, which tend toward the bizarre, weird and surrealistic, the short stories in his first collection, The Emerald Light in the Air, feel quiet and sedate, even hermetic.

All seven pieces deal with the domestic: couples, husbands and wives, fidelity (or not) and personal failings. Many of his characters use drugs (Ativan, Valium), drink a lot (one story is called "Another Manhattan"), have contemplated or attempted suicide or are self-conscious to a fault. The stories can feel a bit cramped and confined, but thanks to Antrim's prose, they sparkle and gleam with subtle insights and revelations.

In the title story, Billy French aimlessly drives his Mercedes in the Virginia mountains until a rainstorm washes him and his car down a hill. Billy's girlfriend, a painter, once told him she was "searching for something that isn't quite there." Suicidal Billy isn't quite there, either.

"Pond, with Mud" is the secret name for Patrick Rouse's "encrypted journal." A poet manqué, he's constantly scribbling down lines and thoughts in his journals. A man of ritual, he always carries his journal just so. Trying to impress his fiancée, he takes her son, Gregory, to the zoo, only they don't make it that far. Patrick ends up drinking in a bar, child in tow.

In polished prose that's analytical, sharp and concise, Antrim reveals the weaknesses in these fragile characters, unable to make simple decisions. Still, he manages to inspire sympathy for his misfits, who can undoubtedly use it. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

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