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Lockett’s Short Stories Provide Authentic View of Appalachian Life

Learning an obscure Mauritanian language may not mean much around his central Pennsylvania hometown of Phillipsburg, but for Michael Lockett, now a transplanted North Sider, his time in the Peace Corps led to humility, empathy, and understanding different perspectives. Those three qualities color his narrative approach throughout a standout debut collection of short stories, In The Cut, in which he approaches often flawed characters by using a deft, humanistic touch.

With a dozen stories, set mostly in the center of this state, authenticity abounds in voice and setting. The opener, “The Blast,” features a high school junior named Bett and her family. The residents of a mining town deal with the fallout of a mine closure and the coming of a strip-mining operation. Its opening is punctuated by a dynamite blast that adds to the personal tension surrounding the teenage narrator — “Every move I make, I anticipate a big boom.” It’s a story where Lockett gets all the particulars right, from Bett’s voice to the mushroom manure her family uses for tomato growing.

In The Cut
by Michael Lockett
Catamount Press

With Appalachia’s rising literary prominence, getting the details right matters for residents who want to see their culture portrayed without stereotype, and for readers grown tired of the limits of cliché. The stories “After the Hunt” and “Gallows Hill” are punctuated with underage revelry that make them relatable and realistic. And with “hardly a thing to do” in the town of Clearview, it’s no wonder the kids would be drawn to “The Pizza Station’s bright neon sign . . . a near carnival atmosphere of teens.” Lockett’s balance of setting and tone helps to drive the aimless desperation surrounding both stories.

In the world of In The Cut, no physical, spiritual, or emotional weakness goes unnoticed, down to the titular Mennonite Jeb in “A Good Father,” who embodies a work ethic as strong as the bonds of his tight-knit family and community. But waiting at Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital while his youngest suffers from spina bifida has Jeb questioning God’s will. He asks, “What kind of man would want this?”

Though accidents and death loom throughout In The Cut they’re used more to gain perspective on what can be lost than to provide a jolt. In a favorite, “Lisa Frank Cosmos,” protagonist Evie Krauss is a third-grader doing her best to navigate the fallout of her mother’s under-the-influence car crash that leaves a classmate’s father injured and Evie’s mom in jail. Lockett grounds scenes by allowing a pricey Lisa Frank coloring set to become a symbol of a little girl’s frustration at being ostracized for the actions of others. Grandmother Meme adds a moral compass, providing warmth and perspective, as well as raising Evie, who characterizes her distant relationship with her mother as being “really like my older sister. We weren’t close.”

In The Cut succeeds because there’s a heart beating in each of the stories, and pain remains palpable. But there’s also quiet redemption that Lockett builds with the ease and grace of a writer who catches the complexity in others.