I Want to Show You More
By Jamie Quatro
Grove Press, 206 pp.

Flyleaf Books
Chapel Hill
March 19, 7 p.m.

Quail Ridge Books
March 20, 7:30 p.m.

According to her bio in her debut short story collection, Jamie Quatro lives with her husband and kids in Lookout Mountain, Ga. This fact becomes eyebrow-raising in the context of I Want to Show You More, which deals heavily with married women living near Lookout Mountain who are caught up in torrid but unconsummated affairs.

Quatro’s voice shines in the adultery vignettes, which form the core of the book and offer different views on one scenario. There’s a female narrator ensconced in a fairly happy family life. There’s an “other man” who lives far away. There are telephone liaisons, nude photos, kisses diverted to the foreheadbut never sex.

Entering the affairs at moments of transformation or revelation, we see how the need for contradictory thingsGod and freedom, desire and fidelityaffects the family and the self. “Imperfections” gets to the heart of it: A man introduces a woman he’s almost cheating with to his happy family as a simultaneous affirmation and negation, a way to “tether this to the space-time continuum” as well as say, “here’s why this can’t happen.” Quatro outlines the alloyed emotional realities of such situations with penetration and high style.

The adultery stories are entwined with ones about death, ailment and depressionthis is a world where seemingly everyone has cancer or disfiguration or murderous secretsand others that veer away from staccato realism into fable-like surrealism. Everything plays out against an ambient Southern Baptist religiosity. It’s not so much that the protagonists are devout, though some are. It’s that God overhangs everything like a miasma, watching and condemninga force to be alternately deceived and mollified, much like the narrators’ families.

As the book progresses, we realize that the stories are less “about” adultery and illness than they are about intense division of feeling. Quatro thrives on jagged, polished passion, often writing dialogue without quote marks, as though language were all one substance with its own impetus and energy. Her briefest tales leave the pages faintly smoking with emotion and lyricism. This is also the case in “Decomposition,” the finest of the long stories. A wife ends a quasi-affair and reveals it to her husband. The lover’s corpse appears in their bed, slowly rotting. Quatro uncannily situates the scenario between the symbolic and the real.

Quatro is a very good writer with an original if narrow perspective, and she is well worth reading. But there are some first-book rough spots, especially in the more outlandish pieces. “1.7 to Tennessee,” a sentimental dud about an elderly, grieving woman walking to mail a letter to George W. Bush, is badly out of place. “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement,” an interesting and vivid alternate cosmology where life is a bizarre marathon, winds up as a rather heavy-handed allegory for the artist’s struggle for authenticity. Also, the “little iambic nonsense phrases” the narrator whispers as she runs are, in the examples provided, set in a dactylic meterabout as far from iambic as you can get. It’s a strange error for a writer who usually takes such care with words, indicative of a perfunctory showiness that occasionally creeps in. What, for instance, should we glean from the fact that a bird sings “a major triad in reverse,” except that Quatro’s ear can pick one out?

But amid these foibles, there are plenty of passages with stunning writing, where Quatro intelligently lays bare tormented feelings rather than tormented writing exercises.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Smoking-hot South.”