K. L. Cook's Last Call captures the bittersweet dysfunction of the everyday like a Bob Wills tune, sweetness shining in the rhythm of Cook's carefully juxtaposed stories. And while family rifts and arguments form the overarching theme of Last Call--elements we humans can easily overdose on--it is well worth the read.
Written through a series of interlocking stories and a variety of perspectives, Last Call features humor and sympathy carefully woven throughout. Cook advances the book chronologically from a bleak beginning to an emotionally fraught end, and seems to almost effortlessly command the tone of voice as he buttresses the story of a son visiting his father in Las Vegas against a mother's rediscovery of love.
These stories demonstrate that what we often see as abnormal behaviors are actually the backbone of human nature--the man who doesn't know how to trust; the woman who's heard it all before; the jaded child who stands in the dark as adults fight and make up in a ritual passed down through generations within a West Texas family.
The stories span 32 years and are divided into four parts. In Part I, Gloria, Manny, Laura, Gene and Rich are young children. Their father is unable to hold a steady job, and their mother--following an argument about the treatment of a dog in heat--leaves without a word. Just a girl, Laura tends to her younger brothers and imagines what happened to her older sister, Gloria, who eloped and ran away. She witnesses her father's first romance with a younger woman and discovers a fundamental change in herself and her perception of the adult world. "It seemed so small, this place, too small to contain all their lives."
As adults in Part II, Laura's little brother, Gene, begs his estranged wife to come back to him, despite the fact that he often was abusive; Gloria's son, Travis, describes his life as a bartender at the Texas Moon and details the fate of his run-away mother; and the youngest brother, Rich, returns to his wife and their old trailer only to find that the dreams he'd harbored of reconciliation are the farthest thing from her mind. The stories of Part II define the siblings as they hit middle age--angry, lost and uncertain of which way they should turn, but satisfied so long as a fist isn't approaching, and the drinks are cheap.
Part III focuses on Laura's relationships as seen through the eyes of her son, Lee. Lee's father is an entrepreneur, but one who's more shady than savvy; gangs, organized crime figures and double-dealers periodically appear on the family's doorstep. Meanwhile, Laura repeatedly picks men who look like Lee's father and who abuse her, putting Lee in awkward situations as both defender and witness. Lee's thoughts begin to parallel those his mother had as a child--"He and my mother were not the same people they were when they were married. This idea of not being who you set out to be or even who you think you are startled me then, made me wonder if I had any inkling who I was, if in 20 years I would look back at this time and not recognize myself or, worse, not care. If, like a snake, or some molting insect, I would outgrow this person and become someone different."
Laura narrates the last story, giving the book a sense of finality, though the characters will continue on, making bad decisions about their lives and emotional demands on each other. All the stories question what it means to be human and examine the part that hate plays in loving each other.
Last Call is the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. No stranger to the short story format, K.L. Cook, a faculty member at Prescott College, has been published in American Short Fiction, Harvard Review, Witness and many other compilations. In Last Call, Cook pulls together just enough detail from each perspective to make his readers want more. The stories themselves are much like the hard lives of people we know and meet daily, but Last Call has wrapped them into a brilliant puzzle that manages to permeate feelings of desperation and dull despair with a sense of hope--the notion that just one good decision or one kind word might be enough to make things work out.