Walt and Samantha married 12 years ago, and they still flirt. The thing is, they're divorced. But they see each other a lot: Walt, a failed-academic-turned-handyman, lives above Sam's garage — even though she's now married to Arthur, a straitlaced professor of dentistry.
Mason Radkoff's wonderful debut novel, The Heart of June (Braddock Avenue Books, $16.95), follows terminally easygoing Walt Farnham through a cross-section of Pittsburgh, from Sam's old house in Friendship to his favorite dive bar and the Shadyside mansion of Miss June, the octogenarian spinster who was the surrogate mother of his childhood and is now his most reliable employer.
As sure as Miss June lives in the past (alongside her heroic lover who died tragically), Walt can never complete anything, in life or carpentry:
Radkoff, himself long employed as a carpenter, slips easily between Tom Waits-y barroom vaudeville, comedies of academic manners a la Richard Russo and the tender, bickering odd-couple relationship between Walt and Miss June.
Radkoff draws on an apparently bottomless well of expert character-based humor: There is seemingly no sort of person whom he can't be amused by, and more often than not delighted. The Heart of June is an excellent tonic for misanthropy.
Adam Matcho's The Novelty Essays (WPA Press, $13) are dispatches from the modern blue-collar reality: a life not of building stuff, but (at best) of selling crap made in some distant sweatshop. For Matcho, that meant sex toys, costume jewelry and other trinkets at a mall "party place."
To be sure, the author as he depicts himself hasn't made things easier: At 25, he's twice flunked out of college, and he and his wife have a baby to support. Even as he takes a third stab at a degree, he's a pothead who swills rum on the job. But the achievement in these 14 darkly funny essays — typically extended first-person anecdotes with ruminative asides — lies in Matcho's general refusal to place himself over his customers (or co-workers), even when they might deserve it.
In "Minor Surgeons," Matcho and an equally clueless co-worker learn how to pierce ears — but not, officially, noses; Matcho offsets the immaturity of his first "patient" by recalling his teenage pride in his own disastrous nose-piercing, "the most important decision I had ever made." And the beautifully blunt "Not It" finds Matcho overcoming his own discomfort with assisting a badly disabled customer.
As much as Matcho loathes the store, he admits,
The Novelty Essays are about work, economic hardship and growing up, but also about the challenge of locating our shared humanity.