Following an author’s work over time has inherent risks. A writer may veer off course for a while, try an unfamiliar path or otherwise test a reader’s loyalty.

So it is that fans of Carolyn Cooke’s short stories and her acclaimed 2011 novel, “Daughters of the Revolution,” may be disarmed by the eccentricities of her new story collection.

At first glance, “Amor and Psycho” may appear to be a departure from the boldness and wit of her earlier work: Thinner, more jagged.

And yet her trademark incisiveness is right there on the page, undeniable.

Cooke, who grew up on the coast of Maine, is not afraid to create difficult, even disagreeable, characters and settings — likability is not a driving force in her work.

Thus, you may find yourself reading one of her riffs on, say, cancer, and laughing along with it. Such daring is one of Cooke’s specialties.

Among the standouts in this 11-story collection is the title piece, “Amor and Psycho,” a tale of teen angst that encompasses suicide, love and chemotherapy.

This twisted love story relies on Cooke’s pitch-perfect branding of two troubled teens — Psycho, the slam poet, whose “voice seemed to come from a deep place, like a funnel or a sinkhole,” and tragic Harald, who “made a permanent mark, like blood or hazardous waste, a wild scribble that lived.”

Cooke creates these and other characters as if from the inside out. They live urgently and intimately, not only because they’re landlocked in adolescence, but because the author infuses them with such telling detail.

At times she’ll issue a single sentence that encapsulates an entire world: “They drank green chlorophyll drinks with antioxidants to prolong the lives they’d talked at length about throwing away.”

Perhaps the strongest piece in this compact and varied collection is “Aesthetic Discipline,” which explores one of the author’s recurrent themes — surfaces and what lies beneath.

A casual affair provides the backdrop for this meditation on aesthetics, in which a Long Island house and its inhabitants become exemplars of style.

The family’s domestic life revolves around a mahogany “tree” installed at the center of the house, with branches as hooks that hold neckties, bathing suits, ticket stubs, etc.

The tree was “a kind of meta-valet, a sculptural, integrated scrapbook, a changing focal point, a psychic courtyard,” Cooke writes.

The Brazir Tree, named for the family, becomes a metaphor for the opaque lives of those who live in the house, barely changing with sickness or health.

“The Brazirs understood the discipline of surface — the depth that was protected by surface,” Cooke writes. “The surface functioned as the depth. What could we do but transcend ordinary, sloppy suffering, rise above it, refuse?”

If all of the stories in this anthology were as dense and visceral as these, it would be exhausting to read Cooke’s work.

Thus, the unevenness of this book, with its forays into the surreal and experimental, may be a mixed blessing. Suffice it to say, Cooke is an author who challenges readers and rewards us in surprising and lovely ways.

Sometimes it’s a character who wins us over; other times, it’s an image like “blue-green, mustard-colored nausea” that does the trick.

Still, at other times, a defining mood or detail will linger in the reader’s mind. During “the autumn of her divorce,” Cooke writes, “life became so quiet that she heard fog drip.”

Joan Silverman of Kennebunk writes op-eds, essays and book reviews for numerous publications.


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