“Annie Doesn’t Mean Any Harm” was my least-favorite story in the book, which is not to say it was bad. On the contrary, it was quite good. Keithley writes beautiful prose and creates characters who stick in your mind long after you close the book.
So, why was this my least-favorite? Simply because it’s so brutal and tragic. As in her novel, The Calling of Mother Adelli, Keithley portrays cruelty upon cruelty. The story deals with a petty tyrant who works as an aide in a senior citizen home, but who badly mistreats those in his care. The story is a terrific character study, but its unrelenting bleakness can be a lot to take.
The middle story in the collection “The Only Thanks I Wanted” is another grim tale that illustrates the old adage “No good deed goes unpunished.” It has a darkly comic undertone to it that resolves in a way that layers irony upon irony.
And this brings me to my favorite story in the collection, “The Second Marriage of Albert Li Wu,” which tells the story of a widower trying to cope with loneliness and haunted by unpleasant memories of his first wife.
This story was my favorite, not because it was written better than the rest, (Keithley’s prose is uniformly excellent in every story.) but because it strikes a bittersweet note, and leaves the reader with a sense of hope. It’s also the longest story, with the most room to develop and get to know the characters.
I’ve been meaning to read this collection for years, ever since Mark Paxson told me about Keithley’s work. I read and reviewed Mother Adelli shortly after. It’s a wonderful novel, but incredibly haunting and emotionally tough to take. I admit, I wanted to wait until I was in the right frame of mind to read this, and reading Mark’s recent novel The Dime, which is dedicated to Keithley, inspired me to do it.
Anyone who loves literary fiction with gorgeous writing, fascinating characters, and a fatalistic, tragic sensibility, should read this collection.