In the collection LOUSE POINT, Shelby Raebeck’s 15 stories are united by their setting, the author’s home region of eastern Long Island, but also by their shared project of unraveling the intricacies of human emotion. The collection opens with one of its finest pieces, “Dream Girls,” in which a 14-year-old boy named Ricky grieves his mother’s death as his sister and father try to swallow their sadness and move on. Ricky sees his mother’s ghost, usually in the bathroom applying her makeup. Though Ricky seems to be the most distressed, Raebeck cleverly shows the pain of the other members of the family reflected in their conversations with the protagonist. Ricky’s father expresses his regret about trying to keep busy during his wife’s illness instead of giving her the intimacy and care that she needed. “She wanted to be loved…That’s all,” he explains.
In the final story, “Camp Hero,” two teenage boys bond over basketball. One boy has a sister, who has been mute since their father died several years earlier. She breaks her silence, though, to speak to her brother’s new friend. A simpler, more saccharine story would have this encounter spark romance, or some other happy ending, but Raebeck offers something more complex, more real, and in its own way more satisfying. “Fremont’s Farewell” effectively mixes pathos with humor, as it is narrated by a high school English teacher who has been placed on disciplinary probation and therefore feels he has nothing to lose by telling his students about his failed marriage. He also pontificates about the writers they are studying in class, including William Butler Yeats, who, the narrator explains, was rejected four times by the same woman. “Shame, people,” he remarks, “The fuel for great writing is shame.”
In addition to the exceptional characterization, Raebeck skillfully creates a sense of place in the stories, and it is a place he clearly knows well. But readers don’t have to know much about Long Island to find something familiar. Anyone who has lived in a small town will recognize the ambiance and well-chosen details. One narrator recalls, “The only one-night stand I’d ever had was with Ginger, the organist at St. Luke’s. Her parents, who’d run a tiny seafood shack and bar in Lazy Point, had finally given up and moved south and Ginger and her brother, Karl, had stayed on in the paid-off house…” These are the small towns, filled with vivid memories, where everyone knows everyone and their parents, where everything always stays the same.
Shelby Raebeck’s latest short story collection LOUSE POINT brings readers deep into the lives of well-drawn characters struggling with grief and the disintegration of familial bonds, subjects he handles with studied mastery.
~Lisa Butts for IndieReader