WHEN MARK RICHARD won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for his first story collection, The Ice at the Bottom of the World, critics deemed him one to watch. Yet his next book, the novel Fishboy, attracted a notoriety divorced from its particular merit when the New York Times wrote about it as a case study of how literary fiction is marketed in our talk-show-driven times. With Charity, a collection that focuses on the downtrodden, the sleepless, and the emotionally indebted, Richard's considerable prowess as a storyteller has again claimed center stage.
It's not that Richard is writing about anything especially new: The first story, "Gentleman's Agreement," employs the familiar plot device of the distant father whose old-school means of teaching his boy a lesson turn swiftly into abuse. But it's the way that Richard works the chiaroscuro that earns my admiration: the way his paragraphs skip a beat, sometimes three; the way his sentences syncopate with steady and swelling breaths (e.g., "The father's hands were packed in grease and wrapped in gauze and the child wondered if those hands would even be able to hold a hammer to nail a rock-throwing hand to the shed wall"); the way his characters slur what they say and conceal just as readily.
Richard doesn't always hit the mark in this book. The longest story, "Tunga Tuggo, Lingua Dingua," is by far the weakest, a rambling tale of family betrayal and revenge. Though filled with scenes that would be at home in our post-Pulp Fiction cinema, and with memorable characters such as the amateur dialect-scholar Cyphus and his clubfooted brother Samuel, the piece doesn't add up to much. Then there's "Never in this World," the tale of a boy telling ghost stories to a girl he's "trying to get something from," which seems to end just as it's getting started.
For the most part, though, the stories in Charity are finely polished gems. "Where Blue Is Blue" depicts a fishing town in the aftermath of a grisly murder. The victim is a female contortionist with the traveling circus, and the local sheriff tries to solve the case using his artwork as a means of divination (Twin Peaks fans may want to get a cup of coffee and settle in). "The Birds for Christmas" and the title story, "Charity," are moving portraits of where sympathy hides for the lonely and the afflicted. The book ends memorably with a brilliant folklore-tinged allegory in which Death shares fortune cookies and advice with a young boy whose brother lies in fever.
Economical and lush at once, Richard's writing is a bold display of craft, recalling Tom Waits (who is thanked on the dedication page) and Denis Johnson, Richard Ford and Flannery O'Connor. No longer merely one to watch, Richard now watches us, and devastating though it sometimes is, he writes what he sees.