Precarious: Stories of Love, Sex and Misunderstanding
 by Al Riske

Luminis Books
2010, Paperback
First collection

Awards: Pray for Rain, winner, 2008 Blue Mesa Review fiction prize.

Al Riske was born in Shelton, Washington, and earned a degree in communications from Linfield College in Oregon. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, copywriter, and ghostwriter. His short stories have appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, Hobart, Pindelyboz, Switchback, Word Riot, and Blue Mesa Review, where his story Pray for Rain won the review's 2008 fiction prize. He now lives in California with his wife, Joanne, and their dog, Bodie. He is currently working on a novel.

Read an interview with Al Riske

"The desert is full of things you can't hold on to – light and heat and sand that slips through your fingers like friendships you once had. But if you're looking for a sense of permanence, the desert is the place to go. I guess that's why I'm here."

Reviewed by A.J. Kirby

At times, reading like Al Riske's new Precarious: Stories of Love, Sex and Misunderstanding is like listening to a late-stage Johnny Cash interpretation of Paul Simon's lyrics. As a whole, they are a kind of double-vision, over-the-shoulder glance at the crossroads moments in people's lives. Simultaneously, Riske's voice manages to capture the gravelly knowingness of an old timer whose road has already been walked, and a youngster who is suffering the desires and confusion inherent in the transition to adulthood for the very first time.

The fifteen stories all concern memory, and the way memories shape our identities. Many of the stories contain a yearning to go back, to revisit the moment of change in a person's (usually a man's) life; to see whether life could have been different had a different choice been made. Whether the story concerns the long hot summer of sexual awakening in California, the stumbling discovery of someone else's memories after an eye transplant or the longing to escape from a small town, there is always a choice. They are stories in which the pull of family responsibilities, religion, correct behaviour, and desire crash together, leaving the characters striving to hold on to their life-raft, their sense of identity. Often their choices are a matter of nature or nurture, but they are never fully their own.

And yet there is always the sense of what if?

"Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable". So said Sydney Smith, the nineteenth century English clergyman and essayist. And here it is often in the silences, the things which are left unsaid, or the misunderstandings that the character's fate is thrust upon them; they are fated to always look back.

Sydney Smith could well have been a Riske hero with such sensibilities. Indeed, the lead character in two of the outstanding stories of the collection, we learn, have studied journalism and religion. In the Blue Mesa Review fiction prize-winning Pray for Rain, Keith returns to the small town in which he was brought up after finishing his studies and failing to find a job. Here, Riske writes with the quiet intensity of John Updike about small town America; he draws us into a stagnant world of gossip and backstabbing; a world Keith yearns to escape from but can't quite find the will to do so. The conflict that takes place within Keith is a mirror of the external conflict, but it is also a result of his education. While journalism tells him it is all about facts, reportage and keeping an open mind, religion gives him that desire for belonging, for the mystical, for something more. The story turns on the ground that lies between the two; when facts can become twisted and misunderstood, and when rules are imposed on the mystic. As Keith discovers:
"The thing I was just figuring out about small towns – I'm a slow learner – is that sooner or later everyone knows why you quit your church and who you've been seeing."
In Precarious, Casey has also studied religion and journalism, and again finds it hard to reconcile the two. Older than Keith, he is married and has a job, but everyone keeps telling him that his life is somehow empty because he doesn't engage in the Bacchanalian 1960s-style free love as they all do. Turning forty and meeting a sexy new work colleague is his crux moment. Should he submit to life in full; the kind of life which is so rich, so free he can hear its "heart beat from half a mile away" or should he remain loyal to his wife, to his own life which others see as amusingly dull? He "imagines a tender kiss on strange lips, a tight embrace with an unfamiliar body, torn clothes and a rumpled bed." But then admits that after "would come the slow, inexorable dissolution of his marriage – the heartbreak and the sadness that would linger forever." Instead of living by fact and by action, he chooses to live in his imagination, and somehow, it is a happier choice.

In all the stories, the transitional moments are hard to grasp at the time they happen. Riske writes beautifully about this in Hold On:
"The desert is full of things you can't hold on to – light and heat and sand that slips through your fingers like friendships you once had. But if you're looking for a sense of permanence, the desert is the place to go. I guess that's why I'm here."
He's also unexpectedly funny at times. Take this example in Pray for Rain:
''How far do you think a Christian should go on a date?' one of them asked me. 'Try to stay within a fifteen mile radius,' I said."
And then there's the sense of looming menace in Dance Naked, which reads almost like the Jodie Foster film, The Accused, only with a twist.

Pray for Rain, Precarious and the artful, very visual Sleeping with Smiley are by far the strongest of the stories in the collection, but some of the shorter pieces shine through too, Skittish in particular, and if only for this mournful passage: 
"I spend my days tearing the covers off paperbacks and mailing them to the various publishers. Just the covers. Saves on postage. The depressing part is that I'm left with all these faceless books that have to be destroyed. It's against the law to give them to anyone, and who would want them? I mean, technically, you should still be able to read them, no problem, but I've tried and it's no good. Like talking to someone who has no face."
The only weak links gather towards the end of the collection: Taken, Just Admit It, and Your Eyes Only all seem rather like space-fillers. Your Eyes Only is a particularly strange choice to end the book, leaving the reader with a jarring off-note after the haunting melodies of the earlier stories, reading, as it does like a wholly unholy cross between the horror movie The Eye and Some Like It Hot.

But these minor irritations aside, Precarious is a brave, wholehearted first collection, full of wit and wisdom. It has a gleam in its eye and often, a bulge in its pants. It's about masculinity, memory and identity. It's about love and sex and misunderstanding. It's about survival of the fittest, but also about survival of the human spirit despite our capacity to over-analyse. It's about remembering those moments when we were really alive - 
"I remember the feel of my oars catching the water in time with Curt's. The muscles don't forget. I can feel the strain even now in my legs and lower back, in my shoulders and in my arms. I can hear the rhythm of our seats sliding up and back in Mr Alt's racing shell.' (Sleeping with Smiley) – and it's about doing the right thing. Things that 'cost us twenty years".

And it is about living with it.

Read a story from this collection in Switchback

A.J. Kirby is the author of three novels; Bully (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2009); The Magpie Trap, and When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, and a new volume of short stories, Mix Tape (New Generation Publishing, 2010). His work will feature in the forthcoming anthology Ten Journeys (Legend Press.)
A.J. Kirby's other Short Reviews: Route "Book at Bedtime"
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