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  • Big Changes
  • Robin Black (bio)
Naked Summer. Andrew Scott. Press 53. 158 pages; paper, $14.95.

In the title story of Naked Summer, Andrew Scott's debut collection, a female character is described as someone who can "only imagine changing her life in big ways." The observation, a disparaging one, comes just as the woman is poised to drive out of Indiana and out of the narrative, never to return. Within the scheme of Naked Summer, this double exit makes a great deal of sense. There is little room in these tales for people seeking big changes to their lives, and, if one is to believe this collection, little room in Indiana itself. Scott's considerable talents are, instead, largely directed toward a population afraid of change, a population that believes or perhaps unknowingly assumes that big changes are usually for the worse. His protagonists are often caught in the argument between restlessness and resignation, and, for the most part, resignation carries the day. The wonder of these stories is that despite this fact they are engaging and even both illogically and convincingly optimistic.

"The day my life changed forever, and not for the better, a tornado watch loomed over us like sad thoughts." So begins the third story in the book, "Tornado Light," which chronicles the final throes of a marriage shattered under the weight of a child's special needs. Very often, as in "Tornado Light," the looming, feared change haunting the tale is the end of a relationship between a man and a woman. Of nine stories in the book, seven are centrally concerned with the staying power of a romantic and/or sexual and/or marital relationship. And in most of these, the woman is the party in control, the man the more passive member of the pair. That sounds like a hefty dose of similarity, but in fact there is no cumbersome sameness to the pieces. Rather, as Scott worries the problems of restlessness and resignation, the question of whether the notion of settling must inevitably carry the implication of giving up, he also presents the issues in fresh enough contexts and from different enough angles that the cumulative effect is that of a thorough examination rather than of anything reworked.

The stories all take place in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, and a reader has the sense of being taken on a tour of sorts through a town, or maybe a region. There's a leisurely pace to the book that suggests ambling with the author down streets, out on country walks. Short stories in general are often structured around particular incidents. "It's about the time that this guy..." and so on. Special days. Peculiar occasions. While some of Scott's stories fall into that category, most of them have—in keeping with the overarching worry about what it takes and what it means to put together a decent life—the quality of being lifted almost randomly from someone's day-to-day existence. A man goes to get a haircut. Another man acquires and loses a girlfriend while dealing with a friend's suicide and the question of whether he's being paid enough at work. These are not plot-heavy pieces, and indeed a couple of them, had I read them outside the collection, might have seemed a little under-realized to me, stories with premises richer and more promising than the completed whole. But Scott has assembled a collection in which the linkages of place and theme make even these few slighter works play a critical role, and the collage of all nine stories is powerful in a quiet and blessedly un-flashy way.

The three stand-outs, for me, are "All That Water," "Lost Lake" and the title work, "Naked Summer," and in these three pieces, Scott writes with a rare synthesis of sensitivity, even delicacy, and matter-of-fact bluntness. It's a tremendously effective and affecting combination. These are the works of a writer who knows of what he writes, whether that is the dynamic between workers at a golf course with hinky employment practices or the heartache of a man whose wife of many...


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