THE SMALLEST PEOPLE ALIVE

Keith Banner, Author . Carnegie Mellon Univ. $16.95 (0p) ISBN 978-0-88748-426-1

Banner's first collection (following his 1999 novel The Life I Lead ) sears and surprises. His stories, mainly set in Ohio and Tennessee, read like small revelations, perhaps because they focus on people usually ignored in gay fiction—rural, low-income, overweight, largely uneducated folks with dead-end or thankless jobs; they might call themselves "white trash," but Banner gives them a dark and fragile dignity. Two developmentally disabled gay men living in a group home are given a secret wedding in "The Wedding of Tom to Tom" after their caregivers look past the constant, against-the-rules coupling to see their deep bond. In the disturbing "Holding Hands for Safety," the overweight narrator's gorgeous cousin has just murdered his 10-year-old "borderline retarded" half-sister. The boys kiss, and the narrator relishes Trent's sudden vulnerability: "he needed someone to love him right after he told.... He knew that I would not tell no one because I wanted him so bad, and that makes me feel trashy but also full of hope again because it will only be me and him who know." Banner demands—and gets—empathy for these often unappealing characters. Their voices are direct and heartbreakingly honest, and Banner's use of imagery brilliantly echoes the low-rent surroundings (fried mushrooms in a fast food restaurant are described as "floating like little severed heads in a hot black lake"). In the O. Henry–winning title story, two characters epitomize Banner's world with queasy, tender precision: "Two queers... in rural Ohio, one slightly obese, the other skinny tight-lipped, wanting to escape but not knowing how." Agent, Gail Hochman. (June)

Forecast: These are dark, fearless stories; blurbs from Mary Gaitskill and Michael Cunningham saying as much should help Banner snag some of the wider audience he deserves.

Reviewed on: 05/31/2004
Release date: 01/01/2004
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