A few months ago I read a story called “The Near-Son” in n+1. It engrossed me completely, right through to the punch-in-the-gut Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”-esque ending. The plotting, the pacing, and the narrator’s bizarre and fascinating affect (was she retarded – somehow not right in the head – or just distressingly honest?) were unlike anything I’d ever read.
“The Near-Son” is now among the inhabitants of Rebecca Curtis’ first collection of short stories, Twenty Grand: And Other Tales of Love and Money. It is a masterful first offering and very much a collection. All of the tales concern the want of love or money (often both) and all have in common narrators whose deadpan descriptions of the monstrous and disturbing are utterly transfixing. Curtis has a gift for the evocation of human cruelty, both a casual, thoughtless variety (“Summer, With Twins”) and a more deliberate strain (“The Sno-Kone Cart” and “Monsters”). Although I found all of the Twenty Grand tales more or less excruciating for the material and emotional scenes they depicted, I could not stop myself from devouring all thirteen in a few sittings. There is a stark, bleak, amoral atmosphere to Curtis’s tales that might, in lesser hands, have made them unreadable, but his is not the case. Ultimately, the lives and minds and souls she portrays – all narrowed or troublingly warped by friendlessness, exploitation, betrayal, and privation – make for an undeniable declaration of the horrific consequences of poverty, both emotional and material. These are beautifully constructed stories and they will stun you even as their content harrows.