If you've slogged your way through too much down-and-dirty urban fiction -- volumes that seem intended more as signifiers (to carry on the subway or place next to your pack of Marlboro Lights at a coffee shop) than as books to be actually read -- you have to be grateful for the honest human feeling in Ken Foster's debut collection, "The Kind I'm Likely to Get."
Foster's subjects are bona fide downtown types hitting 30 but still unable really to think of themselves as adults, living on the dregs of a scene, drifting or surviving on lousy jobs that are fast on their way to becoming careers. But if his characters are sliding into anomie, his writing isn't. Some of the stories are just fragments, like the jarring opener, "Keep It From the Flame," in which a woman abandons her son and daughter in the woods. But with the exception of "Like Incest," whose numbered paragraphs feel too self-consciously minimalist, Foster's prose is sharp, physical and often funny in a way that takes you by surprise. And his details are vivid, like the cafe diners in "Indelible" and the hostel dwellers in the title story who come to life in one-line sketches.
At times Foster catches the precise pitch of edgy urban comedy. In one of several stories that tell of a relationship and its aftermath from the viewpoint of one of the lovers, the male half of the couple arranges for his girlfriend to meet his sister over drinks. The women take an instant dislike to each other, and soon just brother and sister are left. Getting up to leave, the guy notices that his girlfriend has left her bag, takes it home and, unable to resist peeking inside, discovers a .357 Magnum. The humor of the discovery is in Foster's all too accurate depiction of hip modern manners. The guy is worried about his girlfriend -- maybe she's planning suicide? Maybe she's a heroin addict carrying the gun for protection when she cops? But how to say anything? When he finally does, Foster gives the girlfriend the perfect capper: "That's not my bag."
Sometimes, though, as in the windup to "Indelible" (where a washed-out T-shirt design is made to stand for a dissolving relationship), Foster's metaphors can be obvious and even sentimental. And while he remains in control, his characters' uncertain drift begins to feel a bit aimless. The stories never quite achieve a feeling of real, raw experience, yet nearly every one displays the perceptions of an astute observer. Even though Foster avoids all the traps of writing about the young and no longer quite so hip that dozens of other writers have let themselves fall into, the milieu he has chosen to write about finally limits his talent. "The Kind I'm Likely to Get" is often affecting, and the unfussy craftsmanship is apparent in almost every story. But satisfaction just isn't in the cards for Foster's characters, or for his readers, either.