Jamie Quatro’s outstanding debut collection is spiritual without being religious, mystical without straying from daily routine, and magical in ways as troubling as they are charmed. Her best stories — some divinely inspired — are elliptical studies in repressed longing, for sex, for God, for the role of the church, for ways in which a mother can circumvent the life’s commonplaces, husbands included, and ascend elsewhere, to a whispered dimension where things don’t necessarily make sense but possess a marring clarity only the ministering teller can see to recognize.
In “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement,” a woman runner enters a marathon that resembles an otherworldly religious procession (running recurs often, a vital part of Quatro’s real and metaphoric life). Participants must carry statues — silver donkeys, bronze wolves — as a burden of passage. The narrator’s decision to finish, part of a quest for moral clarity, is dead-ended in the most astonishing way. “I’m doing my own thing,” says the narrator, shucking the perils. But Amen is a sham.
In “The Anointing,” a wife and mother muses as her disgraced doctor husband descends deep into bipolar depression, her good will scarred by a fall only the beautiful naiveté of children defend him from. Time and again children play shaman-like roles. “I believe Daddy,” says one, innocence standing in the way of panic’s path.
In “Sinkhole,” a boy nearing puberty, another runner, mulls a strange soft spot in his chest, a fleshy vortex to another world, which only a very sick girl can close. In “Demolition,” a group of impressionable congregants, unsettled by a deaf intruder, strip down their church, and themselves, until they’re naked and silent in a Georgia cave. “Authenticity… our unnamed longing, revealed.”
Though the word meditation is overused, that’s Quattro’s gift: she meditates on steeps slope, working to make sense from irresolvable questions. She follows Hemingway’s “Write what you know” advice, keeping most of the stories local, on or around Lookout Mountain that straddles Georgia and Tennessee, her home, or in Phoenix, where she lived. Like George Saunders, she’s in tune with the warped patois of 21st-century life, holy, precious, teeming with energy, but clear only in contradiction (“I would have never dreamed it was possible to feel arousal and despair at the same time,” says one character). Her epiphanies come with a holy sense of wonder, giving these superb 14 stories a holistic feel.