In “Outside is the Ocean,” through 15 interlinked short stories set between 1967 and 2019, Matthew Lansburgh charts one family’s efforts to survive the misunderstanding and heartbreak they inflict upon each other in their quests for love and connection.

The stories are presented in non-chronological order and feature a wide variety of protagonists and viewpoint characters. At the center of the narrative sits Heike, a German immigrant who, having endured a wretched post-World War II childhood, comes to America craving monetary and emotional security.

Readers first meet Heike in “Queen of Sheba,” set in 1993, when she’s in her early 50s. Staying at the Circus Circus casino with her 70ish third husband, Al, his daughter, Laurie, and granddaughter, Crystal, Heike learns to play blackjack while flirting with Jerome, “a wonderfully dressed gentleman with blazer and tie.” Although “for two years (she) had been a good girl,” the thought of a new romance appeals to Heike, especially in light of Al’s recent and regretted affair with a checker at Vons supermarket. A drive into the desert with Jerome, however, fails to meet her expectations.

Heike proves to be both charming and abrasive, obsessed with helping others as long as she isn’t inconvenienced herself. She sees nothing wrong in swimming uninvited and topless in her neighbor’s pool, sending her adopted child to live with a family of Russian immigrants or breaking into an acquaintance’s home in order to walk her dog. Her behavior is frequently baffling and infuriating, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for her when reality punches a hole in her daydreams.

“She had no sense of boundaries or decorum,” her son says of her. “She liked to be in charge, to exercise control. Over pets, renters, people she came across at Vons or Taco Bell, over Gerry, over her 24-year-old son, an adult last time he checked.”

The stories gradually introduce a cast of richly rendered characters: Stewart, Heike’s scholarly gay son, who exists in a perpetual state of embarrassment regarding his mother’s smothering manner, odd obsessions and self-deceptions; Raymond, Heike’s cold, cruel first husband and Stewart’s father; Gerry, Heike’s second spouse, who provided some of the stability she always craved; and Galina, a Russian orphan with a deformed arm, adopted by Heike against everyone else’s better judgment.

Although some story collections encourage readers to skip around willy-nilly, the selections in “Outside Is the Ocean” ought to be read in order for maximum impact. Lansburgh, winner of the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award, excels at offhandedly dropping narrative questions and answering them many pages later. For example, in “Enormous in the Moonlight,” Heike states that Stewart has committed suicide, which is odd, since he makes appearances in stories set years later. The mystery is eventually solved, but it pays to remember that narrators – and especially Heike – are not always reliable.

Matthew Lansburgh

The title story focuses on Stewart in 1994, as he lets himself be picked up by Nigerian banker Tazik Eze, who takes him to his opulent Boston apartment and ties him face-down to the bedpost with tape over his mouth. Oddly, the situation reminds Stewart of the time when he was in grade school and his father tried to teach him how to handle a gun properly. Raymond told him to “look at the target in the distance, to stand up straight and throw back his shoulders and stop sniffling and, once and for all, to be a man.”

The story resolves in the morning with Stewart, alone and unbound, exacting a tiny revenge on Tazik. The story can stand on its own, but it has an extra kick, thanks to previous references to Raymond’s style of parenting and Stewart’s long struggle with the meaning of masculinity.

Set a few years from now, “Amalia” and “Buddy” provide closure on Heike’s chaotic life. An ill-fated surprise Thanksgiving trip precipitates a major life change, one that allows Galina and her mother the chance to put forward their better selves. The pathos of missed opportunities pervades the final selections.

Lansburgh, whose fiction has appeared in Columbia, Glimmer Train and StoryQuarterly, possesses a keen eye for the telling detail, whether he’s describing Heike’s latest harebrained scheme or chronicling Stewart’s romantic misadventures. The humor and the sadness contained in each story seem unforced, balanced so that neither overwhelms “Outside Is the Ocean.” There is a certain repetitiveness in the structure of some of the stories, which often open with some outrage perpetrated by or against the protagonist and end with a moment of hard-won empathy, but each is built on a solid foundation.

Heike is a genuine original, but it’s likely the reader knows someone like her. With his debut collection, Lansburgh makes his readers cringe at her behavior and sympathize with her plight. Only the hardest-hearted will be unmoved by this graceful and empathetic chronicle of fractured family life.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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