Jason K. Friedman’s confident debut contains just seven short stories, but the author manages to evoke a diverse collection of miniature worlds in his compact collection. And at the center of these worlds are a host of well-crafted characters — typically Jewish, gay, Southern, or any combination of the three.
There’s a stammering shlemiel named Artie, salvaging car parts in a junkyard for an abusive boss; a clear-eyed rabbi named Aryeh, tempting fate in a superstitious village; an old woman named Miriam, trying to hold on to her Yiddish — and her cow — in a family that values neither. Regardless of the people involved, the American South tends to loom large in the background: In “There’s Hope for Us All,” moneyed Atlanta serves as a setting for a tale about an ambitious young art curator trying to prove his mettle. It’s the gritty side of Savannah in “The Cantor’s Miracle,” a heartbreaking tale of a cantor who’s trying to earn enough to survive while he carefully tends to a budding romance.
The strongest stories come at the beginning of the book. In “Blue,” an awkward bar mitzvah boy suffers through a terrible party at his grandparents’ house, wondering if any of the girls from school will ever show up. And in “Reunion,” the highlight of Fire Year, a gay, Jewish New Yorker returns to his Southern hometown for a high school reunion, where he has to face the demons he thought he’d left behind.
Friedman knows how to end a story in an unexpected place, making the reader reconsider what it was truly about — and consider going back and reading it again.
Wayne Hoffman is a veteran journalist, published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Hadassah Magazine, The Forward, Out, The Advocate, and elsewhere; he is executive editor of the online Jewish magazine Tablet. The author of The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder, he has also published three novels, including Sweet Like Sugar, which won the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award. He lives in New York City and the Catskills.