Christine Schutt’s “Pure Hollywood: And Other Stories” is a wisp of a book, as rich as it is thin. At 144 pages, it includes 10 short stories, plus the novella of the book’s title. In one sense, the book is indeed very Hollywood – dramatic, visual, with special effects, and characters whose names, such as Arden Fawn, Lolly Hedge and Stetson Deminthe, are nothing if not theatrical. Several of the stories are miniatures, almost vignettes. What they all have in common is a visceral, unsettling clarity that makes them stick.

Schutt, a part-time Mainer who was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, might well be called a story whisperer. She casts startling, jagged turns of phrase – “The permanence of his absence is a noise she hears when she listens to how quiet” (sic) – and coaxes stories from an accumulation of details. A sense of menace permeates this book, as accidents, misfortune and death amass from one story to the next. Yet even the darkest themes are rarely weighty with prose so nimble and offhand glints of humor. While Schutt is known as a stylist, she’s also a purveyor of suspense this time around. The result is that these moody, often prickly, stories can veer into unexpected territory, keeping us on our toes.

As if ripped from recent news headlines, the novella, “Pure Hollywood,” opens in a fanciful Frank Gehry-esque house that still reeks of smoke from Southern California’s wildfires. The novella itself is a wildfire, of sorts, its gaudy devastation spreading among members of a family. The choking, arid climate taints the characters and terrain equally.

In “The Hedges,” a handsome young couple bring their sickly 2-year-old son to an island resort for a family vacation. What transpires is a tangle of questions and doubts about married and parental love. “What she wanted to know was how long did motherhood last?” Schutt writes.

Perhaps the book’s most evocative story, “Where You Live? When You Need Me?” is a tribute to the elusive bond between mothers and the caregiver who looks after their children, always with an edge of trouble lurking.

“Ella brought out something in the mothers I knew, brought out something in me,” Schutt writes, “so that I, we, all of us recklessly employed someone about whom we knew next to nothing in a summer when the streets at night looked greasy and baby body parts were being found.”

Schutt’s stories move between city and country, and gardens figure prominently in many of them – details that mirror the New York-Maine axis of the author’s real life. If readers sometimes wonder about the relation between an author and the stories she creates, Schutt’s acknowledgements page offers rare insight: Of course she names the usual suspects who helped bring this book to fruition. But her final paragraph might well be a definition of contentment: She thanks her sons and their wives for their happiness and the ease it gives a parent; her granddaughters for making her dotty; and her husband for making her writing life possible. “How does it feel to be adored?” she asks rhetorically at the end.

Surely, contentment is not the standard recipe for narratives that explore its opposite, especially stories that are so complex and nuanced. But whatever brings such stories to the page, readers can only hope for more of it.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.