"After he left her" and "After she left"—those are the opening words to two of the stories in Don't Make Me Stop Now, the new collection by Greensboro's Michael Parker. The repetition is no coincidence: Parker's protagonists may be running, drinking, stealing, starving or drowning, but these are all desperate responses to the same loss.
And they're all doing it here in North Carolina. Parker's characters are habitués of frowsy, venerable Tar Heel institutions like He's Not Here in Chapel Hill and the Outer Banks' Atlantis Motel. Regional readers will be gratified not only by one character's insistence that "we do have a winter in North Carolina," but also by Parker's acknowledgement that "snow down south brings its own brand of frenzied incompetency.... The schools shut down at the first sign of flakes.... Stores surge with overtime stock boys and delivery trucks ... customers line up for bread and beer and candles."
Those two observations about the weather—one indignant, combative and oddly proud, the other flashing a wry grin at our bemusement—set the scale and tonal range of Parker's 12 stories: mostly modest, sublunary miniatures, told in comfortable, sidelong vernacular by and about scruffy losers. ("How's she going to come home to you if you burned your durn house down?") After meeting a few of them, you find yourself wondering, What is wrong with y'all?
Pretty much the same thing, it turns out. Just as two of these stories begin nearly identically, two also share an ending: "I guess we can call it even now" resolves "I Will Clean Your Attic," shortening to "I guess we're even" in "Muddy Water, Turn to Wine." But the brokenhearted can never get even: Parker's lovelorn crew is permanently disequilibrated, erratic, a touch dangerous; they're prone to making pitiably wrongheaded and futile attempts to settle accounts.
But Parker also gives them unexpected dignity. Just when you're about to declare them hopeless cases, they will summon a flare of courage or mercy—often aimed at themselves—or veer onto paths of canny insight or bare honesty. "I am trying to talk now about the nature of love," one of them suddenly announces, as though surprised to discovered himself doing it, and even though his disquisition gets belittled by groceries and bank balances—and perilously distracted by his wife's sexy friend—his glance up toward the ineffable ennobles him for one bright moment.
The literary elevation of runagates and miserables can feel affected—and to be sure, Parker's apparently casual Southernisms and garrulous offhandedness are in fact meticulously sculpted, at times even mannered. The epigraph he chooses comes from Denis Johnson, another author of stylized tales of the drugged, the distraught and the debased. Like Johnson, Parker has an innate instinct for storytelling that gives most of these stories strong propulsion and grip. And like Johnson, Parker is also a natural comedian, his ear is keen and close to the ground, and his search for a soul-cure is so genuine, so devout, that his occasional aerobatics of purplish lyricism don't fly away with his stories.
Michael Parker will make three local appearances: Sunday, Feb. 4 at 2 p.m. at McIntyre's Fine Books in Fearrington Village; Tuesday, Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh; and Wednesday, Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. at Regulator Bookshop in Durham.