At the start of “Strange Attractors, the Ephrem Stories,” by Janice Deal, there’s a map of an imaginary Illinois town, located near the Wisconsin border. Ephrem is the kind of place you’d stop in quickly, for lunch at the Brat Station, before moving on to more exciting places. There’s a Walmart, a nearly abandoned mall, a cemetery, a disrespected community college, and front yards displaying concrete ducks whose costumes change with the seasons.
Don’t let the bucolic setting fool you—these stories are so full of peril and secret longing that the map should include the old warning “Here be dragons.” In writing that’s both simple and precise, Ephrem’s inmates commit crimes, try not to drink, and struggle to figure out what they want, who they’ve become, and what they really feel about each other.
The collection starts with “This One is Okay,” the story of Looie, who just lost her husband to cancer, and decides to let a squirrel have the run of her front room. At first, she seems a little crazy, but Deal slowly and skillfully reveals that her husband was abusive and not worth a long mourning. Looie has started to rebel against the expectations of her old life—with the squirrel, and with her rejection of objects she used to regard as precious. Helping her is a grandson snubbed by his more attractive sister—together they are building a deep relationship. It’s a hopeful story.
Another rebel is Jilly in the story “Antimatter.” Jilly is an overweight mom, too crude to fit into the “cool mom” set at a Park District play group. The narrator befriends Jilly but also wants the acceptance of the wealthy queen bee of the play group. There is a touch of evil in the story, casting a shadow on a well-manicured backyard.
All the stories are connected, so judgments a reader may make in one story are upended by a subsequent one. A bully in one story is also a frightened, abandoned child. A sympathetic, one-legged hotel clerk in one woman’s account of a reluctant visit to see her mother becomes, in another story, a vagabond artist, nursing a sick cat. Physics is another connector—several characters study it, including an alcoholic woman who takes a class in string theory. A minister trying to help a woman after a shocking tragedy explains how from chaos, an ordered form called a “strange attractor” emerges. But the woman muses that if there’s order in the chaos, there’s also chaos in the order.
Because it is set in a small town, it is tempting to compare Deal’s collection to Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” There are certainly similarities. But Deal seems a little closer to Anton Chekhov than Anderson. She handles fine grades of emotion with humor and wistfulness, and with a surgeon’s delicate touch. There is not just a child’s love for a mother—but subtle gradations of it. How much do I owe her? How badly should I feel, about this slight or this absence, or this food stain on a bedspread? The answers are unknown. There is order in chaos, and chaos in order. These strange stories stay with you, attracting more meaning when they’re read again.
“Strange Attractors, the Ephrem Stories”
By Janice Deal
New Door Books, 159 pages
Mary Wisniewski is a Chicago writer and author of “Algren: A Life.”