Perhaps in Maine there's an abundance of men who have trouble connecting with parents, women, seemingly friendly strangers, or law-enforcement officials. If so, Lewis Robinson must know his share. In his debut collection of stories, Robinson takes us on a tour of Maine's lakes, schools, hockey rinks, rich estates and backyards--normal settings where normal men are challenged by all sorts of emotional turbulence.
"The Diver" opens the book with a couple stuck in a tangled-up boat. When the husband finds a diver to help free the boat's propeller, he soon finds his savior to be unpredictable and rude. After fixing the propeller, the diver makes lewd half-joking comments to the husband, at one point saying, "Let's make a deal. You stay here, be the town diver. I'll sail back to Portland, run the restaurant and have your wife."
It's the same kind of tension that Raymond Carver utilized so well in his story "The Bar Bet." Betrayal or the threat of it plays a big part in Robinson's stories. In a couple of them, young men have sex with their friends' love interests. It doesn't help, of course, that one common trait among many of Robinson's characters is having "little experience with girls."
In stories like "The Edge of the Forest and the Edge of the Ocean," in which a teacher looks back on his high-school friend's reckless Romeo ways while presently involved in a shaky affair himself, Robinson lays down the foundations of how many male minds are taught about intimacy, through the immature boasting and lies of their teenage buddies: "Von Ballenberg would grin, consumed by the reenactment, not gloating, really, but not concerned, either, by how all of it might be received by Ian, who hadn't yet kissed a girl. After all, Ian had wanted details, and Von Ballenberg was delivering them up, generously."
The comedy in many of these stories stems from the bleak and cold setting of Maine's dead-end landscape, and Robinson sometimes portrays the people in the same unflattering way that Harry Crews portrays his South.
There are times when Robinson's prose can mesmerize you too, making you think that something wonderful is on the verge of happening, before pushing you over a high cliff. Such is the case in "The Toast," in which a young man accompanies his mother and her new upper-crust boyfriend to a regal party for an ex-governor. He is warned ominously about the party, "people up here are very--um, close. They're going to love you, they're going to love you a lot. But it can be somewhat fierce." Later, he's given a gun and told that he's been chosen to take someone's life. The twist will knock the wind out of you, leaving you dizzy and backtracking through paragraphs looking for missed warnings.
With Officer Friendly and Other Stories, Lewis Robinson has created a vast and complicated world out of a small and simple state. The dark corners of friendship, the mirage of young love and the tragic comedies of life are all here, superbly framed by a great new talent.
By Lewis Robinson (Harper Collins, 228 pages, $23.95)
Robinson lives in that other Portland.