Desert Gothic

Nothing is Gothic about this debut short-story collection, filled with lives as arid and lonely as the sun-baked Nowherevilles of Nevada and Arizona where they play out. Waters, raised in Reno and now living in Berkeley, specializes in self-aware losers, orphans, and small-time crooks and their small moments of revelation. In the graceful, taut "What to Do With the Dead," a young artist takes a crappy job at a crematorium and finds himself delivering a young woman's ashes to Choking, Nev. Waters fuses the macabre and the mundane as the reluctant deliveryman, who, like other oddball antiheros in Desert Gothic, spends the story going nowhere by himself. This affinity for solitary activity is shared by the creepy masochistic long-distance runner in "Dan Buck," the struggling writer forced to spend time with his mother's widower in "Mineral and Steel," and the taxi driver in "Blood Management." Waters is very handy with sly details and grim humor, quietly shuffling his sufferers down unexpected paths and filling their heads with ruefully funny thoughts. "Drifting ghostlike through bountiful produce sections," is how a sweet-natured lowlife in "Holiday at the Shamrock" describes modern frontier life and its tract houses, casinos, anomie, and vague longing for grace.

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