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Darkness And Beauty Go Hand In Hand In 'Black Light'

Sheila, the narrator of Kimberly King Parson's story "Guts," can't run away from bodies: not her own, not others'. Ever since she started dating Tim, a medical student, "all the sick, broken people in the world begin to glow." She imagines tumors and incipient heart attacks in strangers, all the while remaining conscious of her own body, which fails to bring her joy: "I should love my body more," she reflects, but she doesn't.

Parsons brings heartbreaking details to "Guts": Sheila explains how she can no longer visit a favorite fast-food restaurant because a clerk once made fun of the amount of food she ordered. "So many places have been wrecked for me," she thinks. "One mortifying moment triggers all the rest. It starts with fast food and radiates outward, a map of shame." It's a beautiful and uncomfortable story, just like all the others in Black Light, Parsons' wild and compassionate debut collection.

Bodies are also at the center of "We Don't Come Natural to It," which follows a young woman and her friend and co-worker, Suki, who are both obsessed with being thin. "Suki and me, we're hungry and mean," the narrator explains. "We've got bitter jewels buzzing in our guts. They're bright and gaudy, and we couldn't ignore them if we wanted to. We don't want to. It's that starving that makes us glow ... What we've got cuts diamond sharp." The two keep "thinspiration" photos at their office and decline any opportunity to eat.

It's a painful story to read — the narrator and her friend are trapped by longing, but unsure of what they're pining for. Parsons doesn't overplay her hand, letting the narrator's subtle wistfulness speak for itself, and when she has a moment of self-awareness, it cuts like a knife: "Some other, smarter me is a thousand miles away, back home on the edge of hardpan pasture, eating a ham sandwich. Or at least in another part of this city, nourished and well rested, making healthy choices in a grocery store, happy alone, not hanging on to anybody."

Inchoate desire is at the heart of many of the stories in Black Light, including the beautiful "Glow Hunter," about the friendship between two teenage girls growing up in Texas. Sara, the narrator, is taken with Bo, who's "more brightly lit than the rest of us. ... She's really not much of an actress, but she enchants people just the same." The two spend the end of summer driving around the state, seeing "everything worth seeing and plenty that isn't — the bat caverns and the toilet seat museum, that big-ass hole in the ground where a supercollider is supposed to go."

Sara has feelings for her friend, although it's unclear whether they're emotional or purely sexual. The girls experiment with psychedelic mushrooms and with each other's bodies; Sara hoping to find something she can't quite articulate. What's remarkable about the story is Parson's understanding of the constant confusion of youth, and the dread that sometimes goes with it. "I've had almost no loss in my life, but I still believe we're always in between tragedies, that anything good is a lull before the next devastation," Sara thinks.

She writes with the unpredictable power of a firecracker, bringing flashes of illumination to people who struggle with disappointment, both in themselves and others.

Dread and beauty go hand-in-hand in many of Parsons' stories, particularly in "Starlite," the final entry in the collection. The story takes place in one afternoon at a seedy Houston motel, where two co-workers, Jill and Rick, have met to do heroic amounts of drugs and try and forget their respective spouses. Parsons describes the squalor of the setting perfectly, with gleefully vivid language — in one scene, Jill inspects the motel room's toilet, which "smelled terrible in the expected ways, but more interesting was a syrupy top note — vomit, probably — which combined with the bizarre paint job to make Jill feel nauseous but also giddy, like she was stuck inside a rotten piece of taffy."

It's a painfully evocative story about two people who don't know what they want, but can't stop themselves from looking for it in the worst possible places. When the two prepare to leave, Rick says that he doesn't want to go back to normal — "but normal was always there, waiting." The story ends with a heartbreaking image, a tableau of sadness and disappointment.

"Starlite" is a dark story in a dark book, but Black Light isn't at all suffocating, and Parsons doesn't wallow in gloom. She writes with the unpredictable power of a firecracker, bringing flashes of illumination to people who struggle with disappointment, both in themselves and others. Every story in this collection is beyond remarkable, and Parsons proves herself to be a gutsy country-punk poet with a keen eye and a stubbornly unique sensibility.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.