The characters in Jared Yates Sexton’s debut collection, An End to All Things, are rubbed raw. They are at wits end with themselves and each other, but with the help of alcohol and cigarettes they get through it all. Most of the stories follow agitated couples dealing with economic and relationship struggles. Reminiscent of Raymond Carver’ Short Cuts and Larry Brown’s Facing the Music, many of Sexton’s characters are constantly drinking, smoking, fighting and trying to find a way to change things.
In “The Right Men for the Job” a family deals with the decline of their quality of life:
The paper folded and Mary couldn’t get anymore teaching gigs . . . Then our things started breaking down all at once. Everyday it was something new.
In the same story the couple is talking in bed. Their conversation is telling of their situation:
Did we do something to deserve it? Something to deserve our lives going all to hell?
I didn’t know what to say. I guess at that point I didn’t think we were that bad off. ‘Course I was drinking a lot and was out of it most of the time. I probably wasn’t the best judge.
These are, after all, stories that examine the “hardscrabble lives of Working-Class America,” as stated on the book’s back cover. “Hardscrabble” is a good word to describe the bouts of violence, infidelity, depression, loneliness and drunkenness through which many of the characters are living.
Sexton shows a range of story telling prowess through these well crafted, genuine stories about people dealing with the recent economic downturn. In “Just Listen” a man is telling his wife about something extraordinary that he saw that shook him so strongly he had an epiphany:
I don’t get it. I really don’t. The only thing I know is we’ve got to talk about this—you and me and how we can’t seem to get along. All this fighting and screaming and throwing shit. We’ve got to get down to the meat of it. All the lying and finger-pointing and the hate. We’ve got to get down and really talk about these things. I mean it. Some things around her are gonna have to change.
Change is what these characters need most, but they don’t seem to know how to achieve it. They make bad decisions, fall back on destructive habits and share the blame around. There’s no room to judge, however, because, just like the rest of us, they’re just trying to get through the day in one piece.