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Ho, Sweet Ho

Peter Ho Davies, master of character-driven fiction, comes to town


In the title story of Peter Ho Davies' 1997 debut collection, The Ugliest House in the World, the protagonist's father returns from England to his motherland, Wales, to live out his retirement. His visiting son begins an affair with a young mother from the neighboring farm. When a tragic accident happens on the elder man's property, the town turns against him, using the occasion to exercise their anti-English views, and father and son prepare to abandon a house, a lover and a region.

In the author's follow-up collection, last year's Equal Love, the title story imagines a man and woman on the brink of committing adultery when they spy his son and her daughter making out in the woods. It's the kind of story that just makes you say, "Damn, can this guy write!"

In the manner of Sherwood Anderson and Rick Moody, Davies effortlessly pulls you into a story with characters as real as can be and makes you feel for them. When the story ends, it's hard to believe how thoroughly you've been transported in the space of less than 20 pages.

Davies can also be extremely funny. His first book contains a laugh-out-loud story, called "Relief," in which a group of British officers gather under a tent for supper after a successful day fighting Zulus in South Africa. One of the men tries his damnedest to prevent a barn-burning fart from slipping out during the fancy meal but cannot restrain himself. The resultant embarrassment turns to giggles as the men, warmed by alcohol, confess their most shameful episodes of flatulence. Because the story transpires against the backdrop of imperialist slaughter, the outlandish humor is forced to somehow meld with notions of arrogance and injustice. An excellent writer like Davies understands that throwing disparate emotions at one another and letting the juxtapositions sort themselves out can yield great fiction.