Book Review

If you’ve grown up in suburban America, then you know that legends abound there as much as they do in the urban locations better associated with such things. My hometown had the infamous Green Van, known for lurking around playgrounds and little league fields after hours, scooping up children and doing the unmentionable to them before spitting them out, dazed and forever changed, in an empty lot on the outskirts of town.

As an adult it is now unclear to me if the Green Van ever existed. I suspect it was more likely a device created by paranoid, misled adults to manipulate children into submission. Whatever judgments I might cast upon the parents of my childhood, one thing is for sure: once I’d heard about the Green Van I did as my mother advised, walking home in groups of three or more, never walking home alone at dark, and never, under any conditions, accepting rides from strangers. The method may have been suspect, but the message was clear: Bad things happened everywhere, including small-town, all-American, upstate New York.

Novelist and poet Laura Kasischke knows well the dangers lurking in dark corners of suburbia and explores the myth-like quality of its underbelly in her first story collection, If a Stranger Approaches You. Kasischke’s interest isn’t so much in the bad things that happen but in the potential for them and, more often, the impact on the human psyche after they’ve occurred. In the first story of the collection, “Mona,” a mother violates her daughter’s privacy in search of some dark secret she is sure her daughter has been keeping, despite the fact that her daughter had provided “no real reason to snoop.” In the title story of the collection, the main character agrees to carry a small package belonging to a stranger onto a plane, justifying her irresponsible and potentially catastrophic decision with an observation made about the man’s last name: “Kaloustian. Armenian. Kathy Bliss blinked and saw a spray of bullets raking through a family in a stand of trees on a mountain top, a mother shielding her child, collapsing onto him.” The extremity of this violent image offers Kathy an out: She jumps to the misled conclusion that this stranger has been a victim and, by virtue of his victimhood, is less likely to act nefariously. The image also indicates darkness in the character’s mind and in post-9/11 American culture in general. In this new world order, we are drawn to the macabre and terrifying, using it time and again as a rationalization for our action or inaction.

When tragedy does strike, it is a vessel by which Kasischke uncovers the duplicity in what is otherwise known as compassion. In the story “Memorial,” a stone angel in a town park serves as a memorial for dozens of children killed in a fire that had occurred a century earlier. This female angel is described as “kneeling in the grass, looking weighted down by her own wings, as if those wings had fallen out of the sky, as stone, and attached themselves to an innocent woman’s back.” This is in stark contrast to the male angel, the memorial for the adults likewise killed in the fire. The male angel “stood upright with a spear, and very few duties … [his] burdens were nothing like the burdens of the angel in the park.” The death of adults is something to be managed nonchalantly and indifferently, while the death of children is a burden for an eternity, even for memorials made of stone.

Many of the surreal stories in If a Stranger Approaches You possess an admirably allegoric quality. They explore the dangerous terrain of everyday life but also the impact on individuals when the fear of the bad is internalized to an extreme. While references to Starbucks cups and cell phones indicate decidedly modern narratives, all of the fifteen stories in the collection possess an antiquated quality reminiscent of fairy tales. Kasischke’s characters live in stone houses at the edge of dark forests and are likened, as in the longest story of the collection, “Melody,” to mincemeat pies and fresh milk. The horrible unfolds matter-of-factly and in some instances in hurried succession, and the voices are frequently dispassionate, sometimes cruel, often holding the reader at arm’s length.

When read as a whole, Kasischke’s stories can at times feel too similar, the characters only variations of one another. This may be because the line between narrative voice and the voice of character can be difficult to distinguish, creating a redundancy across the stories. This is likewise the case when the reader considers the overt social commentary implicit in the majority of the collection, as in “The Foreclosure,” which, as its title suggests, explores our country’s housing crisis and our collective culpability in it. “We were all having the same dream,” writes Kasischke. “Those of us without houses, and those of us with houses.” But the lessons of this dream have all run their course long before the collection is complete. Nonetheless, during a time when most contemporary literature has been woefully negligent in addressing the crises our country has faced in recent decades, the fact that Kasischke’s stories address them at all makes the collection a valuable read.

About the Reviewer

Lenore Myka’s fiction was selected as one of the 100 Distinguished Stories by The Best American Short Stories and won the 2013 Cream City Review and Booth Journal fiction contests. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, West Branch, Massachusetts Review, H.O.W. Journal, and Upstreet Magazine. She received her MFA from Warren Wilson College.