To say there's nothing fancy about Craig Bernier's debut short-story collection Your Life Idyllic is neither praise nor pejorative. It's practically a quantitative assessment. With rare exceptions, these pieces, ranging from good to excellent, are straightforwardly constructed, plainly written stories about regular people in ordinary situations. Bernier's ability to move and surprise us is all the more impressive for it.
Opening entry "Bender" sets the tone. Billy, a retired Marine in his 50s, is driving his slightly older brother, Nate, to rehab. Billy, who narrates, is bent on fixing his brother ... whose best chance of getting admitted to the program is to seem as drunk as possible when he arrives. Billy works to keep control, Nate to lose it, and along the suburban route Nate keeps pointing out the expertly crafted neon signs he made in his last job, potent if ironic symbols of a better Nate who sometimes was.
Bernier, who lives in Wilkinsburg, is a native of southeastern Michigan, and "Bender," like all but one of these nine stories, is set in metro Detroit. Thanks largely to that region's car culture and sprawling Midwestern flatness, much of the action takes place in or around motor vehicles (though, to be fair, it's not much more than takes place in bars). Most of the stories transpire over the course of a day, or less. Bernier's sentences are short but not obsessively so, bending and stretching limberly for dependent clauses.
More importantly, there are emotional consonances between these stories. "Just Enough Rope," for instance, follows a guy who impulsively knocks out his shop supervisor with a fire extinguisher — one way to express frustration with his dead-end life. If "Bender" explores a kind of hope against hope, "Just Enough Rope" leans hard into blue-collar resignation.
That theme is best explored though in "The Weight of Stardust." Barry, 29, is a Ford night-shift foundry worker who doesn't really want to be there. He's married, with a new daughter, grappling with his stalwart father's legacy, industry downsizing and, tonight, a surprise snowstorm. The story features some of Bernier's best writing, as on Barry's drive home:
The sky was clearing. Barry could see a low, full moon through breaks in the clouds. Radio off, he tried to concentrate on the road, but not the moon. It sat above his hood like a deluxe option that came with the Mk V. He leaned back in the bucket and got a good, clear view. He considered talking to the moon, asking it for an answer, but he stopped short thinking it would be crazy to ask the dead rock anything. The moon looked back stupid, offering only luminescence.
Like much of the collection, "Weight" is largely about disasters that don't happen but are much worried about: Is this my heart attack? Why the busy signal at home? The story concludes on a note of acceptance. Or is it simply the death of Barry's ambition for something more?
A few stories mine a more comic vein. Yet even here, Bernier stays grounded. "Lucky Star" lets a failed rock musician-turned-farrier tell what happens when ex-Detroiter Madonna shows up at his yoga class in Nowheresville, Mich. It's a farce about fame, fantasy and failed headstands.
"The Chief" finds another of Bernier's hyper-responsible ex-military guys taking his divorced sister's precocious, 7-year-old son on a Christmastime bowling outing and struggling not to blow Santa's cover (lest "I become the guy in the story twenty years from now when the topic of finding out about Santa comes up"). The sweet, poignant story also works as a character study of a fretfully paternal guy who's upset by seeing people inappropriately dressed for cold weather.
"Affliction" follows a divorced dad's attempt to connect one Sunday with his own daughter — a teenager whose obsession with French comments on the narrator's ambivalence over the French-Canadian heritage he's abandoned. "Affliction" is funny and engaging, and offers a well-drawn female character in a collection where (a quibble here) all the protagonists are men.
Two stories stand out for other reasons. "Culvert at the Track" concerns an unusual character: an aged, old-school Southern California horseplayer, once wealthy, lamenting bygone glamour and deciding whether to confront a bad losing streak by putting it all on a twitchy long shot. Most of Bernier's old men are on the verge of heart attacks, and perhaps the collection over-relies on this trope, but it's an agreeably colorful story.
And then there's "The Manual of Heavy Drinking," an experimental 15-part piece constructed like a high-functioning alcoholic's how-to: "It's understandable to soul search. Intolerable pressure may push at your temples. Shame and guilt appear and reappear. Drink through these." Brutally ironic, it's unlike anything else here — and also brutally effective.