What weighs heavily upon that investment of time and need for escape is the pressure upon the work to be pitch perfect, to envelope and detail the make-believe world of others spot-on. If the characters aren't believable down to the blemish, if the action isn't plausible, and if the setting's not authentic, then the reader disengages. The mind starts to flit back to worrying about whatever it is we're seeking sanctuary from.
These three Fine Print fiction highlights are drop-dead perfect in tenor and peopled with folks more fascinating and weird than your neighbors.
Wide Blue Yonder by Jean Thompson sets up camp in the head of a not-quite-yet-a-legal-adult aching to break free of her single mom, the cliques of high school and the small mind of the small town where she lives. Set a couple states away in Springfield, Ill., Josie Sloan breaks free of her go-with-the-flow boyfriend and hooks up with one of the town's men in blue. All this loose passion and disenchantment is stirred by summer's heat and storms, the last interlude before Josie's senior year spirals away. Any reader who can look back on that time in his or her own life can recall the frightful sense of self-determination and desire for control in a world that certainly is not about to kowtow to such youthful schemes and dreams.
Toss in Josie's dotty Uncle Harvey who lives by the Weather Channel, her divorced dad who's five steps away from reality with his trophy wife and a renegade criminal-at-large streaking toward Springfield from L.A., and everything needed is in place for a rollicking good read.
These characters will stay in your head and your heart when the lights go off at night.
The characters of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections will also linger in your head, even though you may not want them there. I'll confess that I stayed away from this book due to the whole Franzen-Oprah conflagration, which can be reduced down to a literary daisy deflowering -- "She loves me, I love her not, She doesn't love me ..." But being a big fan of The Twenty-Seventh City and, most recently, Strong Motion, I gave in and picked up one of the most widely talked about novels of the last year. Aptly compared to Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and, because of the dysfunctional family life, Anne Tyler, The Corrections has the slightly off-kilter feel of a Christmas TV special featuring the Royal Tenenbaums on drugs. I'm just not sure which ones.
But it's full of wonderful, wrecked long-simmering emotions, mangled and otherwise impaired egos, and the infamous Lamberts, who have a twisted tie to George Bailey and clan. When the grown-up kids are called back for one last family fest before Alfred, aka Dad, completely loses his memory (which could be a blessing, all things considered), the muted fireworks begin. Muted because, as is typical of many "proper" families, the miffed-of-the-moment never truly vents his or her anger and frustration -- too unseemly -- so the emotions morph into a new set of bitter resentments and assumed asides.
Franzen can really write, but at times seems a little too enamored of his power and vocabulary at the expense of the story. Those moments are good for sheer entertainment and etymological value. An occasional bigger stumbling block is wanting the book to be tighter but, considering how cantankerous the author was once the book was done, I can only imagine how prickly (one can drop the -ly there to get a fuller sense) he was during the editing process.
Last up is Douglas Glover's collection of stories, Bad News of the Heart. This title might be a little trickier to find on local bookshelves, but well worth the effort of tracking it down. Moreso, it deserves to be in more stores and libraries -- Glover is a master at boiling drama down to the crucial nit, revealing the one aspect of a character's personality that makes them memorable and their actions understandable, in fact, almost preordained.
The creative settings for these stories enrich the reading experience further: a southern Baptist in Bel Air, inside the cardboard box home of a homeless man, Saskatoon (although it delights the tongue, who would ever name their city that?) and many more. Writers often lament how much harder it is to write short stories than novels. The need for brevity forces a precision and discipline not necessarily needed in a longer work where many pages of background can support a single event or character twitch (see The Corrections above). Douglas Glover has both the talent and the focus to make his stories zing and will be a writer to watch in the future.