Humans aren’t mere machines, despite outward appearances. They are moved, and often discomposed, by love and loss, by faith, by regret. In this collection of quirky short stories, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, loss of a loved one, especially, is acutely felt: an ex-reporter in “Mechanical Men” lies to get help for his wife who is suffering the degeneration of ALS; a teacher in “Food is Fuel,” facing his own mortality, relives the death of his ex-wife; a slow delivery man in “The Guardian” dotes on a woman deeply troubled by the accidental death of her twin. For other characters, suffering and injustice elicit compassion: a tabloid reporter in “Abduction,” horrified by the vile act of a disoriented young mother, cannot turn away from her; in “Breaker,” African misery wrought by capitalism’s indifference touches the lawyers dispatched to hide corporate responsibility; a college teacher in “Refiner’s Fire,” compelled by violence and racial tension, returns to his neglected community. For still others, labor—menial or otherwise—can be brutal. The narrator of “In the Picking Room,” who is the brother of a disturbed photographer from another story in the collection, works in a textile mill and observes that “a binner is a machine that looks like a man.” It takes the birth of his child to humanize him, to give him a true sense of direction. While the learning in some of the stories is elusive, the endings—more reduction than resolution—always resonate.
The Imaginary Lives of Mechanical Men, by Randy F. Nelson. Georgia, October, 2006. $24.95