With the opening sentence in the first of his new collection of short stories “The Girl of the Lake,” Bill Roorbach catapults us back into the world of middle school adventures: “Bobby Mullendore was sick of sixth grade, especially without his best friend Jack B., plus it was spring.” In a move as old as time, Bobby forges a note and skips school for several days in a row. He spies on a neighboring estate in his spy gear and gets caught. Terrified at first by the commanding personages around Harbinger Hall (also the title of the story), Bobby meets the old man who owns it; he begins giving Bobby lessons on his days off from school, starting with Russian history but quickly moving on to other subjects. In a few pages that function as a montage, we see Bobby grow up and follow in the footsteps, in a way, of that old man, but the story ends with a simple, elegant twist that leaves you questioning what you think you know.
The rest of Roorbach’s stories operate the same way, sketching simple vignettes with refreshing clarity. In “Kiva,” a self-admitted “omega” boy tries with all his might to win the heart of the alpha girl; his father tries to help him, and explains that he must not try to imitate the behavior of the alpha males, but rather learn how to win her over in other ways (so naturally, he tries to learn how to do a french braid). His father takes the two of them and the girl’s two sisters out on a picnic, where more than a few people decide to take a chance on a sexual encounter, in a bizarrely rapid succession.
“Fall” peels back the layers of sentiment you can find yourself wrapped up in when someone dies, and you feel emotions more complicated than just grief; “Some Should” details the utterly unpredictable direction a blind date with a priest — a sinner just the same — can go in (and this one has a shout-out to the Residential College at the University). “Princesa” shows the ridiculousness of older men fawning over younger famous ingenues, a story that borders on absurdism.
The narrators of these stories feel like stenographers. The dialogue is pulled straight from real life, revealing feelings so recognizable that reading the stories feels like a heady case of déjà vu; it’s bittersweet. They cover how quickly things can change in the life of the schoolyard, the cooling of passion between two people who always swore they would stay in touch, the kinds of inconceivable back stabbings that romantic unravelings can lead to, the intricate forms that betrayal can take in the worlds of art curatorship and community theater, and what it looks like when two people fall in love, if not at first sight, then at first rashly constructed plan for a future together. Roorbach has pushed the short story form to its limits, somehow molding worlds with depth in only a few pages each time, making them breathtaking in their simplicity.