Five Hun­dred Poor

Noah Mil­li­gan

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews - MEG NOLA

Cen­tral Av­enue Pub­lish­ing (JUNE) Soft­cover $14.95 (192pp) 978-1-77168-139-1

Noah Mil­li­gan’s col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, Five Hun­dred Poor, takes its in­spi­ra­tion from a quote by econ­o­mist Adam Smith, in which he wrote that for ev­ery rich man, there are five hun­dred poor ones who are frus­trated by their own lack of wealth. The sto­ries’ com­mon set­ting is Ok­la­homa, from ur­ban to sub­ur­ban ar­eas to drought-parched out­posts where “the lazy moos of cat­tle” can be heard be­tween re­lent­less gusts of wind.

Though the ma­jor­ity of char­ac­ters in the col­lec­tion are not desti­tute, they are hin­dered by eco­nomic cir­cum­stances, obli­ga­tions, or emo­tional poverty. They feel trapped and crave change, but are un­able to push be­yond their lim­ited en­vi­ron­ments. Mil­li­gan’s writ­ing has a calm surety, his sto­ries nu­anced with darkly comic, poignant, and truly un­set­tling el­e­ments.

In “The Deep Down Bone of De­sire,” a glimpse of a for­lorn depart­ment-store man­nequin touches off a woman’s spend­ing spree, start­ing with a purse and end­ing with a $250,000 credit-card debt. In “Rain­bow Pen­nant,” a man forced to re­tire from his own com­pany de­fi­antly crams su­gar-free re­tire­ment-party cake into his mouth, and signs the fi­nal con­tracts with the frost­ing. And in “The Mo­tion of Bod­ies,” a com­mu­nity-col­lege pro­fes­sor’s joc­u­lar, racist tweet leads to a bizarre and fate­ful al­co­holic down­ward spi­ral.

The col­lec­tion’s Ok­la­homa back­drop is finely and some­times bleakly de­picted, set amid soul-suck­ing casi­nos, Waf­fle Houses, and road­side stores sell­ing sou­venir Woody Guthrie mugs and ce­ramic buf­falo skulls. Sum­mers are blis­ter­ing, win­ters “brown and spindly,” the pub­lic schools mostly un­der­funded and un­mo­ti­vated. There are also mo­ments of hope and per­sis­tence, cel­e­brat­ing Ok­la­homa Thun­der bas­ket­ball vic­to­ries or the glory of a chicken fried steak. Quirky and com­pelling, Five Hun­dred Poor of­fers a mem­o­rable tour through a re­gion of­ten too dis­mis­sively re­garded as “fly­over coun­try.”

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