Celebrated author Elizabeth Spencer’s new volume, “Starting Over,” is a veritable Whitman’s sampler of bite-sized stories stitched together by their shared stillness. Action is not the point here. Characters’ thoughts roam wild in the Southern night air that glows with strings of lightning bugs. Amid this stillness, one character’s movement in each story is enough to destabilize the atmosphere.
In “Return Trip,” a long-lost relative makes a surprising and none-too-welcome appearance at a couple’s mountain retreat. He reconnects with his cousin and bonds with her college-age son – and then disappears, having stirred up unsettling secrets from the past.
Disappearing family members dot the landscapes of subsequent stories. In “Sightings” and “The Boy in the Three,” it’s children, by way of divorce and college, respectively. In “On the Hill,” it’s a mysterious family that gives legendary parties in their home on the edge of town.
“Blackie,” the most moving story in the collection, centers on a woman who is beloved by her second husband and his three boisterous sons, but her relationship with her own estranged son (and by extension, her sickly ex-husband) is more challenging. She is the eye of the storm, serene even as each family eyes the other warily. But when the two sides collide, wrought with bitter possessiveness, the result is nuclear.
Spencer’s stories dance with the illusion of happiness but swell with unspoken sadness. Humor bubbles to the surface in the most unexpected ways – How can the recurrence of characters who are insurance salesmen not be funny? – but that humor, too, is fragile. Each tale is but a snapshot, too short for a short story and probably not broad enough for a novel.
“Starting Over” simply opens the door to dozens of lives and demands that the reader envision what comes next.