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River Weather
Cameron MacKenzie
MacKenzie (The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career) sets a series of unflinching stories about frequently desperate people in brutal circumstances in 1990s Northern Virginia. River Weather frequently plants the reader right in the middle of a scenario at a story’s start, like the narrator who gets hooked up with a cantankerous contractor Patterson for a house remodeling job in one of several stories that hints at gentrification and how new money blots out old ways of life. Incisive studies of racism and xenophobia also thread through the narratives, from a young man wondering about the story of a car salesman named Kalim Monsour to a developer from Qatar mocking the racists in a neighborhood that he plans to buy up and raze.

What makes the collection so effective and absorbing is MacKenzie's relentless pursuit of verisimilitude in his dialogue and characters, to the degree that he’s willing to make readers uncomfortable. MacKenzie doesn't flinch from depicting the casually horrible ways teenage boys discuss a girl from India in their class, leaving readers to connect their chatter to American Islamaphobia in the era of the first Gulf War. (One boy, having just picked up the word in Civics class, posits that it’s Muslims who are the actual “misogynist”s.) When the ex-football player in “Rowdy” refuses to acknowledge that he was sexually assaulted by his team back in high school, his willful denial is almost painful to take in.

Again and again, race, money, and tradition collide in the lives of people in pain, like the alcoholic father who constantly threatens suicide after he lost his job, or an intense high-school wrestling coach trying to teach a lesson about sacrifice that results in something sad and pathetic. Written in direct, engaging prose, pared down to essences, with dialogue that rings true, these stories dig into the rich dirt of this particular time and place, examining discomfiting truths with a remarkable lack of judgement.

Takeaway: These raw and vital stories, set in Virginia in the 1990s, find desperate people facing collisions of race, money, and tradition.

Great for fans of: Chris Offut, Colin Barrett.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B