cover image Caution, Men in Trees

Caution, Men in Trees

Darrell Spencer. University of Georgia Press, $24.95 (216pp) ISBN 978-0-8203-2182-0

In Spencer's collection of nine stories, which won the 1999 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, the West is polarized between the pious morality of Mormon Utah and the worn glitter of Las Vegas. The title story juxtaposes a mythic Vegas, exemplified by the figure of Bugsy Siegal, resurgently famous from the Warren Beatty film, and the real city, where Bobby ""Best Buy"" Book, who fashions billboard signs for a living, spends his time trying to make his customers, some of them budding gangsters themselves, happy. One of the longer narratives, ""Park Host,"" is set in Canyon Glen Park, outside Provo, Utah, where good-hearted, semi-retired Red Cogsby is at a loss when confronted with two increasingly difficult crises. His wife, Rose, is fixated on the O.J. Simpson trial, and her obsession may mask a deeper depression, while his friend Earl Tall, having been told he has Alzheimer's, wants Red to kill him. Suicide or mental illness is at the margin of many of the lives Spencer chronicles: from the husband in ""There's Too Much News"" (the only story set on the East Coast) to the ex-Mormon broker in ""It's a Lot Scarier If You Take Jesus Out,"" who copes with the news of his ex-girlfriend's suicide by halfheartedly trying to pick up a married clerk at a fabric store who resembles her. Though the recurrent juxtaposition of humdrum lives and extreme acts can grow tiresome, and Spencer's vision of the world in these stories is dark, the collection avoids utter bleakness and is invested with saving grace through the stark honesty and blunt humor of his characters. (Mar.)