Thursday, February 8, 2018

Book Review: "Sweet and Low: Stories" by Nick White

The characters in Nick White's soon-to-be-published story collection Sweet and Low are all trying to figure out their next steps. These are all different kinds of people—widows, ex-lovers (or on the verge of becoming ex-lovers), teenagers, men become rapidly disillusioned with the path their lives are taking—yet each struggles with questions, decisions that could impact their lives.

I first became familiar with White's writing when I read his debut novel, How to Survive a Summer (see my original review), last year. That story, about a young man who can't seem to shake the experience of attending a gay conversion camp when he was younger, had a searing, haunting quality at times, and demonstrated White's talent for creating powerful emotion in quiet moments.

White's stories don't share the same subject, but they reinforce his talent, and I found many of them tremendously compelling, poignant, and beautifully told. The first half of the collection is composed of miscellaneous stories; linked stories comprise the second half, following Forney Culpepper from boyhood to disillusioned adulthood. Some of the stories are longer than others, and some honestly felt like they could be expanded into full-length novels.

Among my favorite stories in the collection were: "The Lovers," which follows a widow trying to figure out life without her husband, and his lover, who has become obsessed with getting back a family heirloom he gave the man before his death; "These Heavenly Bodies," about a troubled adolescent who is bewitched by a beautiful pair of conjoined twins; "The Exaggerations," which tells of a young boy living with his aunt and uncle, and only starting to understand the mysterious paths adults travel; "Gatlinburg," about a couple trying to give their relationship one more try on a vacation to the Smoky Mountains; "Break," the story of three college friends who get more than they bargained for on a weekend trip; and "Lady Tigers," in which a high school senior haunted by family scandal can't keep his mind off the school's basketball coach—with disastrous consequences.

I'm not always a fan of linked stories, but I thought they worked well here. White's characters are tremendously appealing, and at times I found myself disappointed that a story ended because I wanted to know more of what happened to the characters. I always view that as a mark of a talented writer. One warning: two of the stories have brief moments of animal cruelty—the stories don't glorify it, and both incidents are over quite quickly, but I know some people like to be prepared.

Even when a story didn't quite click for me, I was still drawn to White's writing ability, his ability to draw me in. He's definitely going to be an author whose career I'll continue to follow, and I hope this collection earns him some notice. Once again, I am reminded of why I love reading short stories.

NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Dutton provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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