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 Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Hadassah Magazine, The Forward, Out, The Advocate, and elsewhere; he is executive editor of the online Jewish magazine Tablet. He has 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.