Occasions for Insight: On Karin Lin-Greenberg’s Faulty Predictions

Keith Wilhite

Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2014. 192 pages, $24.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

In the title story of Karin Lin Greenberg’s Faulty Predictions, winner of the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, a sly psychic, Hazel Stump, unwilling to relinquish the ghosts of her past or mend broken family ties, writes an esoteric message on the chalkboards of the local college where her granddaughter studies art. Although she cannot bring herself to acknowledge this biracial young woman, neither can she resist a primitive desire for contact, to communicate, to inscribe herself within an imagined family: “HS JS KS.”

As the book’s title suggests, life often consists of recalibrating our hopes and prospects—for others, ourselves, and the world around us. Yet Lin-Greenberg’s collection cautions against pessimism and, instead, imagines instances of “faulty prediction” as occasions for insight. The stories explore moments of emotional excess and failure that test the bonds of family or friendship and challenge characters to reexamine their own necessarily limited vantage points. At times here Lin-Greenberg slows the pace down, almost to a narrative still frame, allowing readers to savor the precise shift in perspective that leads to a more capacious worldview. Toward the end of “Faulty Predictions,” the narrator notes, “But maybe Hazel was right about this one thing. We both carried ghosts with us—everyone our age did—but what was important in the day-to-day was who was there.” These stories display generosity, even toward unsavory characters, and express a measured optimism about our ability to communicate, move forward, and repair the bonds of kinship.

In sharp, unadorned prose, Lin-Greenberg examines divisions between insiders and outsiders, generational conflicts, and evolving definitions of family and community. Certain pieces also show an astute awareness of how region informs these thematic tensions, whether in small Midwestern towns or in the Appalachian territory of western North Carolina. Almost all the stories in Faulty Predictions are “academic adjacent” without seeming like insider campus lit. Indeed, Lin-Greenberg seems far more interested in the relationship between the college campus or high school and its surrounding community, especially the wounds that fester between economically dependent small towns and their elite liberal arts colleges.

Lin-Greenberg also demonstrates a facility with different modes of narration. In “Editorial Decisions,” narrated in first-person plural, insecure high school girls court literary pretensions, but they find themselves unable to respond to a real tragedy of the kind that informs their maudlin poetry. She uses second-person narration to subtle yet powerful effect in “Designated Driver.” The bus driver’s backstory of alcohol abuse and academic failure emerges gradually, and because of the jarring second-person address, each layer of the story catches the reader slightly off guard, landing like a blow.

One of the standout pieces in the collection, “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes,” is set in Morningstar, Ohio, a small town that maintains an ambivalent relationship with Lake College and the privileged, cosmopolitan outsiders it attracts. Lin-Greenberg deftly portrays the friction between the urban pretentions of the title character and the entrenched resistance by the native residents to his intrusive presence. She filters this classic literary conflict through the intermediary figure of the bed and breakfast owner who, herself a native, also caters to and depends upon these outsiders for her livelihood. The narrator fancies herself a resident sophisticate and archivist of Morningstar’s history: “Ask me anything about this town and I can likely give you an answer: people talk to me, tell me things.” In the end, she alone comprehends the town’s complicity in their tragic loss: “And then I knew we were the ones who’d made the worst mistakes of all.”

Since each story hinges on a moment of epiphany such as this, the revelation at times can seem, well, predictable. For example, the radiologist in “The Good Brother,” who chose his profession because “he didn’t like people,” belatedly and too expectedly realizes the importance of human vulnerability, patience, and empathy: he “wished he had someone to call.” But this is the rare exception in a stellar debut—and, it should be noted, in an otherwise delightful story that is by turns graceful and funny. Indeed, humor recurs throughout Faulty Predictions: the petty, perpetually disappointed grandmothers in “Prized Possessions”; the slightly surreal element of the inebriated pig in “Designated Driver”; the vigilante in “Bread” who cruises supermarkets and damages outdated loaves in the name of consumer rights; and the crusty professor in “Local Scrooge” whose carefully crafted persona dissolves after an adversary leaks a video of him playing with his grandson.

Lin-Greenberg possesses a precise, assured voice and a keen eye for detail, and her debut collection covers an impressive range of characters, experiences, and locales. The final and longest story in Faulty Predictions, “Half and Half Club,” reads like a novella, weaving a kaleidoscopic portrait of personal and communal dysfunction in a small Kansas town. Although the story gestures toward hope and reconciliation, the characters all hover on the cusp of some greater truth and, as such, the story withholds the now-expected moment of dramatic insight. Lin-Greenberg leaves us with an image that evokes a welcome sense of uncertainty as identical twin sisters slip through their bedroom window and “into the darkness.”

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