What's likable about Paolo Corso's first collection of short stories is easy to discern. The 10 stories in Giovanna's 86 Circles -- most set in the Pittsburgh area, where Corso grew up -- are accessible, big-hearted fiction, their characters rooted in family, community and Italian ethnicity but always open to the possibility of personal transformation.
The collection's earthy appeal suffuses "The Drying Corner," narrated by an adolescent girl living in a moribund Allegheny Valley mill town, and centering on her aging grandmother.
The mirrors in my grandma's fruit store made it look twice as big, and footsteps tapdanced on the hardwood floors, sounding as if there were more people than ever. The floors smelled good -- like a Popsicle stick after I licked it clean. What I liked best about the place was how many things I could turn upside down and dry for Nonna when she wasn't looking. I was saving it all for her, but she didn't know that.
Corso, whose works include two volumes of poetry, has a gift for simile. In "Yesterday's News," clothes hung in a second-hand store "all were evenly spaced, lined up like singers in a choir." Even in "Unraveled," in which many references seem beyond the 10-year-old narrator, Corso's facility charms: "I kept watching her blue ball of yarn spin slowly on the cement floor, a globe that was all oceans and no continents."
Corso grew up in the Alle-Kiski Valley and later worked as a Valley News Dispatch reporter before moving to New York, where she now teaches fiction writing at Fordham University. Her characters are regular working folk, almost all of them living in Pittsburgh or neighboring small towns. They're all female, typically constrained by finances, mis- or underemployed, and usually pretty damn Italian. Giovanna's 86 Circles is piled high with Rosettas and Sophias; one story, "Freezer Burn," revolves around two sisters learning to use their Sicilian great-grandmother's starter dough.
The stories are also pretty damn Catholic. A couple of Corso's adult narrators make sure to confess that they're lapsed Catholics, which is arguably the most Catholic thing to do of all, and she often describes the light in her rooms as if it emanates through stained glass, or from votive candles.
In other words, Corso has, as has been written of Bruce Springsteen, "a Catholic imagination." Like Springsteen, too, she tends toward the apotheosis of everyday people struggling with faith of some species -- as in the metaphorical and eventually literal spirituality of "Between the Sheets," set in a hospital laundry where an older co-worker of the narrator prepares for the death of her husband.
Corso's stories share another trait with pop songs -- what you might call an "I" problem. Each of her stories is in the first person. That would be fine if it didn't induce her to hold her characters so close they don't always breathe. The title story illustrates the trouble: Narrated by a child, and featuring a subplot about kids learning how to kiss, it quickly turns too cute by half.
Characters rendered in the first person, even unsophisticated ones, needn't succumb to this affliction. When the protagonist in Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." says, "So I pulled my napkin straight back through the napkin ring and left the table," readers get both the character and Welty's sharp but affectionate ribbing of her wounded dignity.
When Corso skirts the edges of sentimentality, it's usually without tumbling in. But another tendency, too, grows problematic through overuse: Most of the stories climax in some kind of fantastic vision -- a woman turns into her mother; a baby grows from a ball of yarn; a miracle garden erupts through a cement floor.
Occasionally this works well. "Raw Egg in Beer," set in a neighborhood tavern, has the grounded feel of a folk tale. Narrated by a newspaper reporter covering the apparent last night on earth of a small-town mayor who's predicted his own demise, it starts out a little odd and slides almost imperceptibly into a kind of absurd redemption.
Nonetheless, it's in a story about two unhappy women bonding over hummingbirds that Corso, without resorting to any magical realism, seems to hit her stride: "Nose Dive" conjures a sense of human isolation delicately breached.
Finally, with characters who "beam" lines of dialogue, and redundancies such as "hot steam," Corso could use closer editing. Still, Giovanna's 86 Circles is pleasurable enough, and a vivid look at Pittsburgh's day-to-day from someone who knows and loves it well.