It’s not the first time an author has interwoven short stories in a collection, setting them all at the same place, or centering on the same characters. But Mary Troy’s Joe Baker is Dead [U. of MO Press, 1998] does things a bit differently: while these stories make brief references to characters in its other stories (usually as part of this South St. Louis City neighborhood’s character), every one of them is touched by this dead grocer Joe in some way. Although there is no story for Joe Baker himself, by the end of the collection, the reader gets to know the departed through all of the other characters’ references to him.
It begins with a lumpy, middle-aged woman Joe had an affair with, and it ends with Baker’s own twitchy, depressive son. In the other of these nine stories, we learn of Joe through both nosey and self-absorbed neighbors, customers of his lousy produce market, hopeless hairdressers and bad open-mic poets, insane preachers and every other type of local color the gifted Mary Troy can snag off of South Grand and hold captive in language.
But it’s not really about Joe, and one doesn’t need to read the whole collection to garner some larger truth. These are individual stories, in the best sense of the word. Each one is full of emotion, detail and personality that makes it an event to read on its own, sit with, and wait for the aftershocks before rushing into the next.
Perhaps most impactful and entertaining is “On Iron Street,” which may just be one of the finest short stories this reviewer has ever read by anyone. Why it hasn’t been at least nominated for a Pushcart Prize is beyond me.
As in Troy’s follow-up collection of stories, The Alibi Café [Bkmk Press, 2003], a dark humor creeps through each tale in Joe Baker is Dead. But Joe Baker steps away from that predominant first-person, sassy female protagonist voice in the second book (which isn’t to slight that voice in the least). Rather, her debut collection first shows her readers her great range with a more diverse character and perspective.
Indeed, Mary Troy’s talent is inspiring and worth the extra effort it may take to find a copy. We all know a Joe Baker. Do it to remember him. You won’t be sorry.