Damn straight I judge books by their covers, and I judged the hell out of Lonely Christopher's The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse (Akashic Books, 200 pages, $15.95): The cheeky nom de plume, drily academic title and bloodied prepubescent doll-boy had me anticipating some unholy union of Tao Lin's preciousness, Ben Marcus' experimental airlessness and Dennis Cooper's deadpan depravity. To be clear, I would not have enjoyed such a mélange. But when I rallied to actually read the book, I found sharp and shimmering constructions inside, stories that sparked like burning bugs. What I found was a vicious debut collection by a young writer not on the verge of great things, but a young writer already doing great things.

Guided by the black light of Kafka's "The Judgement," perhaps literature's supreme domestic nightmare, Lonely Christopher worries at the wounds made by family and at the odd cancers quickened by desire. The strongest (and longest) story here, "Nobody Understands Thorny When," is also the most superficially traditional. Darting back and forth on the mine-ridden timeline between a boy's abduction and eventual return home, Lonely Christopher uses a rather familiar story arc to upset notions of tragedy and redemption. What emerges is an unsettling and haunting study of what it means to love people who love to hurt us, to hurt people who hurt with love for us.

Things do get structurally strange, as in "That Which," an Oulipo-esque experiment consisting only of one-syllable words, and the narratives do flirt with outlandishness—"Milk" concerns a horse trapped between a fridge and a microwave—but the limpidity of Lonely Christopher's language and his startlingly keen eye for common (but no less damaging) emotional cracks keeps the stories moored to a world that is recognizably ours. "White Dog," the final story in The Mechanics of Sexual Intercourse, introduces us to a woman who has just woken up in a grocery store's parking lot. She does not know how she got there, but she decides to shop, because although the nature of her arrival might be a mystery, the fact of that grocery store and its stocked shelves is not.

Lonely Christopher is, in his subtle way, describing his own work, a push-pull of sense and transcendence that commands us to keep moving, keep searching for ways to understand why we are this way.

GO: Lonely Christopher reads from The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Jan. 31. Free.