Wendy Rawlings’ new collection of short stories, Time for Bed, opens with a devastating story. In “Coffins for Kids!” a mother goes in search for the perfect casket after her daughter is killed in a school shooting reminiscent of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. The story ends, not with the casket, burial, or even closure for the mom or reader. Instead, we are left on the floor of the shooting range at NRA headquarters while two strangers give the grieving mother gun-buying advice. As the male characters argue the child’s death could have been prevented had her mother owned a gun, readers are left to ponder the surreal deaths of children at the hands of deranged gunmen.
Many of the stories that follow end the same way—with uncertainty. However, they’re not all as gut-wrenching even when the subject matter is heavy. An especially relatable story is Rawlings’s “The Yak Pants” in which the narrator tries literally and figuratively to fit into absurd slacks and to an equally absurd set of social conventions. In “BodSwap TM with Moses,” Moses, a retired Kenyan runner with palsy, swaps bodies with the narrator, an obese woman who has the financial means for this unorthodox weight loss program. The narrator gets a slimmer body, and Moses will be paid to “MELTFATFAST.” It’s a heartwarming story, but only if the reader overlooks what Rawlings calls “the critique of capitalism’s terrible ability to oppress nearly everyone, especially women and people of color”. In another story, the reader laughs with a struggling alcoholic who wants to spend more time with her niece. In Rawlings’ oeuvre, warmth, absurdity, violence, and humor coexist in surprising ways.
Although current social and political issues animate Time for Bed, Rawlings also credits the influences of George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, James Salter, and Alice Munro for her collection. As she explains, “I’m always writing in response to stories I’ve read and admired.” However, Rawlings’ collection certainly holds its own weight in illustrating the ways we balance difficult realities with the comic relief we need in order to cope with loss, loneliness, and oppression.