by Susan Engberg
The characters who inhabit these beautifully articulated stories are all, one way or another, running away. From family, from unappealing strangers, but mostly, and most desperately, from themselves.
In “On the Late Bus,” a 15-year-old “and nobody’s sweetheart” treads the unsteady ground between the home of her father and stepmother and that of her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. In “The Dead Also Eat,” a waitress—the product of an unloving father and an unloved mother who “one day just wasn’t there anymore. No heart attack, but if you ask me her heart had already been attacked”—tries futilely to flee the attentions of a persistent, distasteful patron. And in “The Edge of Town,” a young mother feels her life closing in on her as she slowly, horribly realizes that her husband has probably been unfaithful. But however well observed and nuanced these pieces are, they do not come up to the level of the title story.
In “Sarah’s Laughter” Engberg writes of a man whose distaste for companionship is almost palpable. Thomas Burden, a retired book critic, prefers to endure in solitude the horrid encroachments that old age is making on his body. “More and more, every day, he was becoming a piece of baggage to be heaved and lugged here and there.” Thus, he is unprepared for what happens when he agrees—reluctantly—to join his daughter, his ex-wife, Sarah, and her kindly second husband, Otto, in the Wisconsin North Woods for the Fourth of July weekend. Engberg makes achingly palpable Thomas’s pain and isolation and his distress at being sucked, ill-equipped, into the world of the living where—at least as far as Sarah and Otto are concerned—kindness and expansiveness are the coins of the realm. (Knopf, $18)