Let's get to the point, because that's what Kirk Nesset does in Mr. Agreeable (Mammoth Books), his new collection of flash fiction. The stories are extra-shorts -- two dozen of them in less than 100 pages. They're even built mostly of short sentences.
Nesset's characters are suburban or small-town folk, somehow confronting loneliness or broken relationships. A college instructor recalls his past in the instant of weathering an earthquake; two young sisters from a violent home breed snakes; a man fakes his own death.
Some stories are prose poems as much as narratives -- a single character reconstituted in a stylized flow of words over four pages. It's particularly true of the five "Mr." stories, including "Mr. Erotic," "Mr. Destitute" and the title piece, about a human doormat.
"Scream" is structured around a DVD pause button. "Hot Water" is a hilarious slice of life about two diner waitresses in a sketchy resort town. The deeply sad but somehow comic "Heartland" is set entirely inside a mall.
Nesset teaches at Allegheny College; his 2007 collection Paradise Road won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. It's no surprise to learn that he's also written the nonfiction study The Stories of Raymond Carver: Stories in Mr. Agreeable like "I Want You to Kill Me" compete with Carver for tautness.
Nesset's pieces seem to go down like candy, with their precise and engaging rhythms. But then -- surprise -- they stick in the throat. Sometimes it's with a twist, as when a woman turns the tables after a stranger in a supermarket asks her to pose as his girlfriend. Occasionally, it's with a sudden touch of surrealism, as when a man rages at the horny fellow who's just rudely vanished into somewhere inside the man's sister.
There are limitations to the flash-fiction approach, more evident in some stories than others. In short-shorts, one tends to summarize characters' mental states rather than dramatize them: "Adrift though he is in post-divorce torpor, Alt's still trying to hook up with women." I believe it; I just don't feel it.
More often than not, however, Nesset gets the necessary effect through the play of language, much as a poet would. Indeed, his language is thoroughly pleasurable throughout. Here's a sample of a man's slow breakdown in "The Noise That Wants to Be Joy":
Sound was the problem. I'd stopped going to work.
The sound made me tremble, made me impotent,
made my hair fall out in the sink. At least I knew the
animals heard. I saw maniacal looks on neighborhood
dogs, saw Rob Stoop get bit adjusting the least on his
Corgi. The charcoal-black lizards did push-ups non-stop,
blue rooster pouches pooching out, pure territorial frenzy;
wrens broke their necks on my windows.
The stories in Mr. Agreeable seem to become more densely emotional as the collection progresses. But for those less inured to flash fiction, that impression might be a function simply of getting used to the form.
Kirk Nesset reads with Timothy Gager and Lori Jakiela, and music by Ha'Penny at The New Yinzer Presents. 8 p.m. Wed., May 19. ModernFormations, 4919 Penn Ave., Garfield. $5 (or potluck contribution). tnyblogspot.com