In her debut collection of short fiction, Amanda Davis is unafraid to tinker with the form. The 15 stories in "Circling the Drain" include the autobiographical pieces you might expect from a young writer (Davis is 28), but they also range into the less traveled territories of revenge fantasy and whimsy. At times, the aim seems mainly to experiment with language.
Despite their varying structures, most of Davis' stories have common themes. They concern women who are unlucky in love, or are about to lose something else that is precious -- a sibling, an emotional connection, a sense of self-worth. The heroine of "Prints," which won Story magazine's annual "short-short" contest in 1997, still grieves over her older sister's disappearance 20 years earlier even as she at last comprehends how it happened. In the title piece, a clerical worker falls for an actor and follows him to New York, abandoning "the flat Midwestern landscape of her life." Stunned by his casual betrayal, she responds with a desperate act. The angel that subsequently looms over her hospital bed may or may not be real, but it certainly embodies the author's attraction to the supernatural.
So does "Testimony," in which a young woman named Erin is convinced that her late brother Jack could channel the voice of God. Her account of Jack's short, tormented life is peppered with e-mails from believers in an impending apocalypse: "The time of the Messiah IS AT HAND," writes one. Erin seems to accept these pronouncements at face value, but I was less clear about what to think. Is Erin merely "looking for someone to tell you what to do, to replace your brother," as her psychologist suggests, or should we take her insights seriously? The story is among the longest in the collection and contains no hint of irony -- signs that Davis thinks her heroine might just be on to something.
It is in her six experimental efforts that Davis strives hardest for poetic prose. One of them, "Sticks and Stones," traces the love affair between a woman named Charity, and Dingo, who works at the shoe-rental counter in a bowling alley -- he's a "a tall slick daddy, a hunk of boyish charm who could call a shoe size from across the room." These stories command attention for their verbal riffs but don't engage you as fully as the more conventional works. The strongest of them may be "The Visit," a skillfully handled account of the effects of Alzheimer's on family dynamics.
In the final selection, "Faith: or Tips for the Successful Young Lady," Davis pairs her affinity for voices and visions with the realities of high school. The slimmed-down narrator, whose dieting was induced by a suicide attempt, sees and hears her former fat self urging her to strike at those who drove her into misery. The concept is at least as old as "Carrie" (and as recent as Littleton), yet this take on the perils of high school for fat girls and other misfits seems just about right.
If the details sometimes seem drawn from movies rather than from life (the young woman in "Circling the Drain" arrives in New York via Greyhound bus -- don't all Midwesterners?), Davis nevertheless displays a marked gift for immediacy. In nearly all these stories, even those that exhibit the most self-conscious Creative Writing, things move right along. By combining her talent for narrative with her willingness to take risks -- and cutting some of the fancy wordplay -- Davis might really soar her next time out.