Acclaimed short story writer Steve Yarbrough, whose works have been included in the Pushcart Prize anthology and The Best American Mystery Stories 1998, once again demonstrates his gift for vividly rendered characters and evocative themes in his latest collection of fiction.
Veneer presents a variety of characters from cultural backgrounds and settings that range from California to Mississippi to Eastern Europe. Yarbrough’s sensitive portrayals of loss and longing are individual and unsettling; a disaffected college football coach, a movie star with a “substance problem,” and a small-town girl coming to grips with the murder of her mother are just a few examples of the turbulent lives he portrays. In every instance, each character is “constantly searching for some way to bridge the gap, so small and yet so vast, between a right move and a wrong one.”
A poignant theme running through this collection is the conflict between appearance and reality. Yarbrough presents the reader with deep narrative layers, juxtaposing the gritty present with nostalgic recollections of an idealized past or hopeful projections into a rosy future. “Veneer,” the title piece, beautifully reveals the depth of this conflict. On the surface, the narrator, a married man whose family is away on vacation, enjoys a dinner with a woman who has been a longtime friend. Beneath that “veneer,” however, lies a more complex, perhaps troubling, relationship between the two friends, a relationship only partially obscured by the comic recounting of a childhood Independence Day.
Yarbrough is at his best when he offers us brief glimpses into his characters’ minds and imaginations, brilliantly exposing subtle vulnerabilities as cracks in the veneer. “Bohemia” follows the travels of two young lovers as they explore Europe. The woman fears that her lover will abandon her, and when she wakes to find him gone one evening, she believes her fear is confirmed. Yet his return does not alleviate her insecurity. The reality of her lover’s presence and her continued anxiety emphasize the many layers that constitute the woman’s world.
Diverse in locale, character, and content, the stories in Veneer present rare views into the rifts between husband and wife, parent and child, one sibling and another. Crafting these compelling, deceptively simple stories is a writer whose “true subject is the human heart.”