John Brandon is not one for tidy resolutions. Most of the stories in his collection “Further Joy” end on a moment of possibility, even hopefulness, for his characters. Whether that optimism turns out to be justified for often-flawed, even delusional, people is really up to the reader to decide. I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on it — although some of these characters would.
This is Brandon’s first collection of short stories for McSweeney’s Books. His debut novel, “Arkansas,” was perhaps the most kindly portrayal of a backwoods drug-dealing ring imaginable. His second novel, “Citrus County,” featured a middle-schooler who begins a sweet courtship with a fellow classmate whose younger brother has been kidnapped — not revealing that he’s the one who abducted him.
As you might have guessed, Brandon is comfortable putting his characters on morally squishy terrain and daring you to judge them. In the opening story of "Further Joy," “The Favorite,” a shady financial dealer who had his fortune wiped out retreats to his Florida hometown. Instead of rehabilitating his moral compass and learning some small-town life lessons, he uses inside information to bet against the local football team. And he wins big.
In the chilling “Palatka,” an aimless young woman befriends the teenage girl living next to her in the apartment complex. When the girl disappears, the woman tries to get the authorities to look for her, but nobody is much interested. “People take off and then a couple of months later, by hook or by crook, some news of them will filter back. You find they went out west or something.” Brandon’s landscape, of one-bedroom apartments and strip malls, is one where everyone is rootless, anyone can disappear without a trace. At the end of the story, the woman seems to be ambling toward a disappearance of her own.
Where Brandon errs, I think, is when he introduces elements of surrealism or magical realism into the stories. “The Midnight Gales” takes place in a small town where random residents appear to be raptured, with the roofs of their houses missing, making the homes “look like hungry baby birds.” (OK, that’s a great image, I grant you.)
In my least favorite story, “The Differing Views,” a man reeling from his wife leaving him has to also deal with finding seven living human brains sitting on the hardwood floor of his spare room. They represent something, it’s just not clear what. Maybe they just represent Brandon’s worry that he can’t keep the story running solely on the man’s bruised emotions. He could have, but he didn't.
In my favorite story, “The Picnickers,” a middle-aged woman who has fallen out of step with her circle of friends decides, on a whim, to go on a day trip with one of her friends' teenage sons. Brandon’s fiction is full of such random connections between strangers, but this may be the most satisfying, as the unlikely couple explore new territory between friendship and more. The story ends with “She was reaching for his hair now, limp-looking but coarse, and he was moving toward her, meeting her. She felt the sensation of falling, but she was down on the ground already.”
See what I mean? Possibility.