The Turkish president Recep Erdogan looms large in Kenan Orhan’s I AM MY COUNTRY: And Other Stories (Random House, 227 pp., $27), a powerful and provocative debut collection with a vivid sense of place. “The Stray of Ankara” is about a woman training a dog to act as a suicide bomber to assassinate the authoritarian ruler before he can do further damage to the country’s government, environment and civil society. In “Soma,” Erdogan visits a mining town after a devastating collapse and attempts to console the crowd by telling them that the price of coal production has dropped drastically since the industry was privatized. (They respond by chanting, “Murderer Erdogan.”) In “The Beyoglu Municipality Waste Management Orchestra,” successive waves of anti-Western sentiment and government repression cause people to purge their homes of contraband. A garbagewoman hoards discarded items she finds in the course of her collections: musical scores, musical instruments, eventually musicians. She gathers enough of each to make good on the story’s title and its magical realist conceit.
The same cannot be said of the longest story, “The Birdkeeper’s Moral,” in which half a century of Turkish history is seen through the lens of a star-crossed romance. This smart, heartfelt saga is dragged down by talking birds who pithily argue ethics with their would-be keeper. More deserving of attention are a stunning pair of border stories: In “Mule Brigade,” a Turkish military unit is sent just over the Iraqi border with instructions to execute all of one town’s mules. The narrator comes to suspect that the lieutenant’s true goal is neither to stop the spread of disease nor to suppress the Kurdish Workers’ Party, but cruelty for its own sake. In “The Smuggler,” set during the Syrian civil war, a Syrian man must get a pregnant 15-year-old Kurdish girl across the border into Turkey by pretending to be her husband. He worries he’s being made an unwitting accomplice to sex trafficking or separatist terrorism; the girl meanwhile insists not only that she is politically innocent but also that her conception was immaculate. This is Orhan at his best: finding comedy lurking on the outskirts of tragedy, reveling in the inherent absurdism of the all-too-real.
The seven dense and digressive stories in Ana Castillo’s DOÑA CLEANWELL LEAVES HOME: Stories (HarperVia, 245 pp., $27.99) breathe similar life into Chicago and Mexico City. The stories range in time period from the 1960s to the 2010s, and the closer we get to the present day, the larger the past seems to loom. “Cuernacava” is a quasi ghost story in which a man from Chicago retraces a trip to Mexico that his father took in the 1960s, and uncovers a long-buried secret along the way. In “Ven,” a gay man living in Chicago starts reading his late sister’s diaries, which leads him to retrace her steps through Mexico, where he too uncovers a long-buried secret. In “Ada and Pablo,” a woman comes to suspect her husband of 30 years is gay, but instead uncovers a different … you get the idea.
Castillo’s tone and syntax reach for the chatty and colloquial but come off oddly arch, sometimes surprisingly hard to parse for basic meaning. “His brain, both hemispheres, welled up with unanticipated infusions of new information,” she writes of one protagonist. Describing an “inseparable” adolescent friendship in “The Night at Nonna’s,” she writes: “If what they felt in common wasn’t enough, as with all alliances during war and peacetime, what sealed the bond between them was a secret that, if found out, could ruin either or both.” In “Tango Smoke,” “an emotional eruption occurred like tectonic plates about to decompress with an eruption.”
And yet, “Tango Smoke” goes on to become the best story of the bunch. It’s about a divorcée named Mártir who moves in with a much younger pot dealer who shares her love of dance. The Chicago she inhabits feels as authentically complicated and desperate as her character. Castillo deserves credit for training her gaze on working people, squarely and without sentimentality. This is a world of factories and diners, beauty schools and swing shifts; the characters struggle to make rent and look for ways to feel halfway human despite all the economic and cultural forces aligned against them.
Onward to Texas, specifically Austin and San Antonio, the key locales in Andrew Porter’s THE DISAPPEARED: Stories (Knopf, 218 pp., $28). Spare but not exactly minimalist, these stories are cleareyed and unadorned, invested with just as much authority as they require to do their appointed work, like a row of votive candles in the dark recess of a church. Every one of these 15 stories is narrated by a man in his 40s, like as not striving for patience with a clinically depressed wife or girlfriend. The repetition is redeemed by Porter’s deft variations on his themes, and a handful of snapshot-like flash fictions deployed at intervals to switch up the pace. In one, “Chili,” a man remembers a now-deceased neighbor who used to cultivate hot peppers. One night she presented a pepper too hot to touch, let alone eat, but so perfectly formed she could not help showing it off, “as if it were the child she’d never had, or a painting she’d always wanted to make, this tiny, beautiful thing, so full of heat it might kill you.”
“The Disappeared” is a quietly astonishing collection. These are stories about men and women in the throes of middle age, taking stock of their lives, loves and losses. They worry about money, illness, parenthood, tenure and all the other vagaries of fate. The strongest stories — “Austin,” “Vines,” “Rhinebeck” and “Silhouettes” — are shot through with almost subliminal strangeness and build toward endings of uncanny attenuation, endings worthy of Raymond Carver in his later, elegiac mode. The narrator of “Rhinebeck,” who’s been asked by his married best friends to relocate with them from the Hudson Valley to Austin, puts it this way: “It’s strange to be 43 years old and have no clue what the future might hold, to realize that you might have stepped onto the wrong train at some point in your life and somehow ended up in a place you hadn’t expected or wanted or even known about when you were young. It’s akin to waking up from a dream, I think, only to discover that you yourself were not the dreamer.”
Justin Taylor’s next novel, “Reboot,” will be published in 2024.