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Lonely misfits lurk in ‘Music’

Collection of stories never ceases to surprise reader

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MUSIC THROUGH THE FLOOR: STORIES, by Eric Puchner, Scribner, 213 pages, $24.

"Music Through the Floor" is a collection of nine surprisingly original stories that depict characters who are so overcome with depression or loneliness that they fail to hear the music of their own lives. It is a debut collection from a creative-writing teacher at Stanford, and it really sings.

All the stories have a common thread: they are about alleged misfits, people who, some way or another, do not fit in. Yet, while their situations can be sad, they are also often very funny.

This is one case in which it can correctly be said that the writer writes about what he knows. After finishing school, Puchner worked at a number of different jobs for which he was not strictly qualified, bringing him into contact with people and situations he would not otherwise have understood.

In "Children of God," for example, he writes about a caretaker for two mentally retarded men, which emanates from genuinely funny experiences he had at just such a job.

Puchner calls attention to people who, when visiting the mentally challenged, are awkward or embarrassed around them — but he never at any time mocks either his charges or the people they meet. He tells the story straight but with genuine empathy.

In another story, "Essay #3: Leda and the Swan," Puchner writes what is actually a fake essay that a student might have written in one of his classes. As a result, it has many ingredients that any English teacher would recognize, such as little asides for the benefit of the teacher in the form of footnotes, i.e. "Mr. Patterson, I know this is supposed to be a paper about literature, and the particular literature named 'Leda and the Swan,' but you also said that we could use examples from our own life if we found something of 'universal interest.' That's why I've departed on a tangent and am writing this essay about love. I guarantee, universally, if you asked people which they'd prefer — a topic about LOVE or one about PERVERTED SWANS — they'd choose mine in a second."

"Neon Tetra" is a story about a young son who feels he can't relate to his father. When the boy is "lurking" behind him, the father says in frustration, "What do you need, son?" The boy is lonely.

And while the staid, serious father doesn't often surprise his son, the boy and his mother are both taken aback when fair-skinned Dad goes out sunbathing in his swim trunks — something he never does — and the Mom says, "Look at the bathing beauty!"

Later, as the son and father are together in Dad's Buick, the father unbuttons the top two buttons of his shirt, "so that a gleam of burn was revealed, a perfect triangle of red, a few pale hairs sprouting over the V of his shirt and curling along the placket."

When they go into a fish store, the father asks for "some neon tetras," meaning some kind of "super-heroine" fish. His son is alarmed. The clerk dips in the tank for the fish, but the father is unsatisfied and takes the net and tries to catch the right fish himself — but it's always the wrong catch.

Puchner is a high-energy young writer who never ceases to surprise the reader with new images and descriptions, telling stories that hit home because all of us know what it's like not to belong.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com