The 11 stories in Emily Fridlund’s slim collection, Catapult, make her title seem especially apt. They reveal the coiled, uncanny power that propelled her debut novel, History of Wolves, onto the Man Booker Prize shortlist this fall. The teenage loner at the center of that haunted coming-of-age tale (a babysitting arrangement swerves onto grim terrain) turns out to have offbeat kin in the uncozy houses that Fridlund has been visiting in her short fiction in recent years.
Families are upended again and again in stories that, though they rarely have tight plots, unfold in taut sentences packed with startling insights. Why wives suddenly leave, or what husbands expect, or how siblings cope may at first seem weirdly baffling. Yet the worries and the secrets, the lies and the confusions that Fridlund exposes are likely to strike a chord.
“I can’t tell anymore which parts we’re supposed to play: who’s the parent here, who’s the wife, who’s the child,” says the narrator of the opening story, an abandoned husband and semi-embattled father. Many of Fridlund’s characters share his disorientation. They don’t grow up, exactly, but they do grasp at wisdom. And they appreciate wit. That father, saddled not just with his teenage son but with his son’s infant, wryly takes note of who among them most astutely sizes up the domestic tensions. “The baby says, all sarcasm and scorn: ‘Wow.’ ”