Australian Malouf’s latest collection again displays his talent for introducing characters that are simultaneously fully-boned and ethereal . The first three stories are by far the best. Angus, the youthful narrator of “The Valley of the Lagoon,” a coming-of-age tale, disdains the “left-handed unhappy agendas” of adults, whom he doesn’t understand. He joins a hunting party with adolescent friends including brooding Stuart, who’s fallen for his sister Katie. Stuart and Katie are an enigma to Angus, who observes them puzzled and mesmerized. But in the brush emotional passageways open up. It’s a place with “a history the rest of us had forgotten or never known.” When Stuart is shot, the blood that flows from him is “eight pints of rude animal life.” Love’s turmoil, Angus recognizes, is all around but in different shapes.
In the title story, Jo falls for builder-carpenter Mitchell Maze, whose real name is Bobby Kohler. She is fantasy; he is all nuts and bolts. The chiseled details of their love affair is interrupted by a twist that pushes Jo toward “the real face of grief.” “War Baby” is an existential Western about young Charlie Dowd, preparing to ship out to Vietnam, and bewildered by the fuss around him. When he returns two years later he’s not a walking horror story, a cliché Malouf deftly avoids, choosing a different canon: “We lose whatever innocence we might have laid claim to the moment we are drawn into that tangle of action and interaction, that gesture and consequence, where the least motion on our part, even the drawing of a breath, may so change things that another, close by or far off, will be nudged just far enough out of the clear line of his life as to be permanently impaired.” This is a fine collection of drawn breaths and nudged dominoes.