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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, September 25th, 2001


Bargains in the Real World: Thirteen Stories

by Elizabeth Cox

A review by Stephen Amidon

The thirteen stories in Elizabeth Cox's new collection memorably capture those moments when quiet lives are changed forever by sudden acts of violence or catastrophe. Set mostly in rural Tennessee, these stories pulse with car crashes, gunshots, tornadoes, and self-slaughter — cataclysms that strand characters in a no-man's-land between the hard circumstances of their present lives and the dizzying possibilities of an unexpected future. Time and again these emotional refugees are forced to grapple with a reality for which they never bargained.

Cox's harsh vision is all the more effective for being conveyed by a disarmingly genteel prose. She is at her best when depicting how characters come to recognize that their lives are gradually slipping beyond their control: "Harold didn't think things had changed all that much, but he remembered when Nadine had seemed soft. Her softness had unraveled with the years, and he felt left with just a thin wire of who she was." Occasionally Cox's writing loses its edge by covering too familiar territory, most notably the philandering revivalist preacher in "Biology," whose actions could be predicted by any attentive reader of southern fiction. But such lapses are rare in a collection that manages to map that elusive territory where devastation and hope miraculously intersect.

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