The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is the setting for this book, which can be read either as a series of interconnected short stories or as a novel told in stories. The writing is driving and energetic and uses a lot of atmosphere to set the mood. "This is the best book I've read in a long time," says Lucia Silva of Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, Calif.
Death Messages: Instructions for the Officer
The snow is on everybody tonight — on upturned faces, reflected back in the irises of children in the window; on the hot back of your wife's neck as you know she's shoveling the snow at home; on the men chopping wood for the stove, warming themselves (as the Finnish proverb goes) twice. You can hear the echoes of the axework just barely through the winter air so thick with flakes. You are bringing the bad news to the family whose daughter went through the ice. This always goes to the youngest, they told you, the ones who haven't got seniority or sense to avoid the dark work. And you're it, just out of the old high school that will be torn down in a year, so you read in the Daily Mining Gazette, the newspaper that rarely reports on the mines anymore except in retrospectives and to say that they're still closed and still there are no jobs and the hills surrounding the town are riddled with shafts like holes in the body.
You have no holes in the body from duty. No bullets taken. You've never even been cut.
A girl through the ice with a guy. Elizabeth and somebody. You never remember men's names. Prom night and you're holding a gun and you're working, you're walking up some other girl's steps to her parents—only a year beyond prom yourself, that night that had held so much before you got it and turned out as empty as a fist, that night which you regretted.
Your breath forms fountains in the air as it batters the snow. A couple lights on in the house that you had to walk up the snowed-in driveway to get to. You are halfway. The manual says to make lots of noise on your way to the door so that you are not a surprise, to leave the cruiser's lights on for authority, to make sure that the parents are properly seated. You do all of this tasting salt, hardly making out their backlit faces with the fire open behind them and the warm air coming out to your breath and melting the snow. Inside there are pictures of the girl and you try not to look and you know you must come straight to the point and give them the news that is bad that is the worst that is good only because it's something certain, but nothing good.
You write down instructions on how the parents can recover the body — she is being dragged up as you speak but it is certain that the body in the base of the lake is her. They don't even understand what you are saying. You are back out the door walking backward, back in the snow that's half-down on the ground, a down on your body, a fuzz in your voice and your breath leaping out of your mouth and it's like you are eight again, your brother ramming your head through the wall and your lack of understanding, and having to cover up the holes in the walls with glossy posters of cars that gleamed in the bedroom light. You are shaking, as if you were the one receiving the news. You sit down on the snow next to the sidewalk, and then you lie back in it.
When you get to your car, the streetlight is out. There are kids throwing rocks at one another, but you won't reprimand them or take them in. The water main might be leaking and the pipes are frozen all over town, you're sure. Drunks on their way home troll the roads like zombies. City Council election posters hawk their candidates. All the animals in the street are dead below the plows. Your mother will die soon, you just know it now, no more holding on in the home with the iron bars of the bed and all the static on the radio since she can't tune it in quite right. And you know you must go back to her with this knowledge wrapped like a gift — a syringe or a prayer in your hand, hot on the back of your neck burning red and wet from the snow.
Excerpted with permission from Sarabande Books. All rights reserved