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Elizabeth McCracken explores grief in ''Thunderstruck'

Flirting with disaster: Elizabeth McCracken's new collection 'Thunderstruck' homes in on grief and calamity.

Haunted people wander through cul-de-sacs reeling from small-scale catastrophes or pace through Parisienne arrondissements wishing for different lives in Elizabeth McCracken's "Thunderstruck and Other Stories." Her second fiction story collection is a stunningly beautiful rumination on loss.

"You are so unlucky you don't want to brush up against anyone who isn't," a narrator laments in "Something Amazing." Sadness is an infection, an allergen, a communicable disease, passing from mother to mother as children are lost or die. McCracken's vapor of misfortune threads around her characters and binds them. Throughout these astonishing stories, men and women grapple with how to survive despite personal calamity.

McCracken artfully and without judgment homes in on the strange things grief does to a person in their search for modest solace. Can one really blame a mother for inadvertently kidnapping a young, terrorized neighborhood boy when her own ghost daughter is making her ill with grief? McCracken asks us how the left-behind can move on when death is present in every bit of living minutiae: "The dead live on in the homeliest of ways. They're listed in the phone book. They get mail. Their wigs rest on Styrofoam heads at the back of closets. Their beds are made. Their shoes are everywhere."

What does moving on even mean, one has to wonder. In "Juliet," a group of small-town librarians commune in mourning over the shocking murder of one of their patrons, whom they've nicknamed Juliet. They comb through checked-out library books and try to piece together evidence through library gossip: "She knew someone was after her... [She] had once asked for a book that would tell her how to keep people out of her house." The librarians insert themselves into Juliet's death, claiming a sense of ownership over her. They want to be a part of the story. They want their feeling of loss to make sense.

Misfortune reverberates strongly enough to reach even near strangers. Casual, everyday cruelties are used to combat the universe-sized cruelty we cannot explain or control. McCracken writes, "A dead person is lost property. You know this. Still, you've been searching for what was taken. You know — you've been schooled in this fact — that what you owned will never be returned to you. But you're still owed something."

In "Property," she catalogs loss with items that hold the ectoplasmic remnants of its owners: a saltshaker shaped like a duck, with a chipped beak, named Trudy; a collection of tables; bad pottery.

McCracken does not just look at the deficit of life. A rueful glimpse of an unfortunate relationship, a life not lived to its fullest potential, and immortalization gone wrong in "Some Terpsichore" is another standout. As is "The Lost and Found Department of Greater Boston," in which a Hi-Lo grocery store manager expects his hero moment to come after "rescuing" a young boy from his terrible circumstances.

McCracken illuminates a weird truth, which is that we are sometimes undone not by grief but by our belief that we deserve so much — empathy and understanding, even a break. She spends the entirety of her brilliantly moving collection searching for small miracles while her characters fumble with the reality that nothing is owed to them, not happiness, not repentance, not more time. The tide's gone out and the leftover detritus of their lives doesn't look so good.

These stories build around the absence of a person as those left behind try to carry on with life, but it's impossible, really. McCracken's previous book, the memoir, "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination," about losing a baby and then having another, embarks on a similar search with equal grace and beauty.

In the title story of "Thunderstruck," the most startling and affecting of the collection, parents Wes and Laura travel to Paris with their two daughters in hopes that their troubled preteen daughter, Helen, will straighten out. Instead, in a late-night tryst she falls off a building and suffers a traumatic brain injury. Depending on which parent you're asking, Helen is either a miracle or a burden.

McCracken sets up moral conundrums throughout her collection. Readers will find themselves asking, well, which is worse — the aftermath of death or shouldering the living? "Thunderstruck & Other Stories" never buckles under the weight of all this grief, though. Moments of joy and pure magic flicker and pitch-perfect humor acts as a furtive SOS signal through the fog of loss.

Waclawiak is the author of "How to Get Into the Twin Palms."

Thunderstruck & Other Stories

Elizabeth McCracken
Dial: 224 pp., $26

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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