In the title story of J. Robert Lennon’s new collection of short fiction—a book 15 years in the making—a man stumbles, surreally, into a kind of dream job on a tropical island, only to sense that something’s not quite right.
Indeed, nothing is ever quite right in the 14 stories that populate See You in Paradise, whether it’s the subtle exhilaration that comes with a very realistic tragedy or the slow unwinding of a family thanks to an inter-dimensional portal in the backyard. The stories range from the relatable to the bizarre, the comic to the horrific, and yet they’re all unified in the creation of a strange American landscape that’s at once alien and all too real, a landscape with the power to transform us in remarkable, unexpected ways.
In tales like “Zombie Dan” and “The Wraith,” Lennon deftly weaves the supernatural into scenes of domestic discord and sexual dysfunction. The realistic elements of those stories are so sensitively and vividly portrayed that you could substitute a zombie for an old friend from college and get much the same emotional impact, which somehow makes the supernatural tint that much darker and more effective. “Portal,” which opens the collection, leaves such a lasting aura of strangeness that, as you move into less supernatural (but no less weird) stories like “Hibachi” and “Ecstasy,” they seem haunted by their own darkly funny magic. Even if it’s not there, you sense it. There are spells at work in all of these pages, and just like the characters that populate them, by the time you’ve turned the last page, you’re not the same.
The greatest trick of See You in Paradise, though, is Lennon’s ability to deliver bitingly surreal fiction that also makes you believe, with each passing page, that you’ve been where these characters are. When life is at its strangest, you laugh and cry and shriek unexpectedly, you become the monster under your own bed, you take leaps of faith and insanity that pay off in terrifyingly big ways, and somehow all of that wound up in this book. It’s not just a sampling of more than a decade of work by one of fiction’s most satisfyingly inventive voices. It’s a harsh, hilarious, unnerving portrayal of a world just strange enough to not be our own . . . but only just.