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Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work Stories; Jason Brown; Open City Books: 284 pp., $14 paper

December 23, 2007|Carolyn Kellogg | Carolyn Kellogg hosts the literary blog Pinky's Paperhaus at www.pinkyspaperhaus.com.

Some of the stories in "Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work" are so devastating that you may need, after finishing them, to set the book aside and simply be still.

It's not that fate is cruel to the characters in Jason Brown's second collection, comprising 11 stories set in Vaughn, a fictional Maine town. Instead, there is a current of duty and betrayal, as if each character had been born into debts he or she didn't fully understand. Is it the town's long interference with the landscape -- farming, logging -- or something older, the Puritan sense of original sin?

In "She," the opening story, Natalie, a contemporary Lolita, disappears with bad boy David Dion. The two spend a fervid night in the back of a car, unwittingly becoming the focus of the town's thoughts. One man pictures "her tanned thigh . . . her blue shorts scrunched up above a pale line . . . the curve at the corner of her mouth, which would harden into a battered smirk, he knew, by the time she was his age -- by the time she was half his age."

The stories move on to characters of all ages, creating a picture of Vaughn that is as much family tree as portrait. In "Trees," aging Aunt Lucy fails to tell her nephew that she'd prefer he not cut down her centuries-old pines; soon, she hears chain saws. Equally powerless is young Katie Small, who sees a man go through the ice in "The Lake" and believes she didn't get help fast enough. The Small family, which appears in a few stories, has always been trouble. When a boy named Andrew is befriended by Jamie Small in the title story, it shows that he's been tainted, just as the Smalls are.

Riding his bateau down a dangerous log-filled river, "Haywire" Harry Clough's memories tangle with the moment in "River Runner," whose structure elegantly circles back on itself:

"The last pulp drive down the Kennebec and there were no alewives in dark schools waiting to ascend the falls, no shad or striped bass or blueback herring. Nothing in the river but sinkers and bark cake and raw waste from sixteen towns coating the bottom, methane bubbling up through the water and pulp in the booms waiting for a freshet."

Similarly, "Life During Peacetime" overlays the "real" narrative with a dream (or self-delusion). A preternaturally eloquent boy conjures his absent father: "[H]e sits there in a plastic chair with his windbreaker in his lap, as quiet as an empty glass of water."

In "North," a teenager listens as her grandmother tells a story of her home's previous owners burying their dead daughter in the backyard -- a ghost story, the teen already knows, from the newspaper -- and each time the grandmother retells it, she becomes more of a participant, falling further into the fiction. The story becomes more real to her than her physical world.

Brown's ability to make your heart ache is a rare gift. There are a few off notes here, but "Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work" is an exceptionally beautiful and devastating book.

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