Addiction, loss, and loneliness are just a few of the struggles characters navigate in Ambushing the Void, the debut collection by James McAdams. Outliers search for salvation from a syringe or the Internet, but what they really want is to find it in other people.
The 17 stories, consisting of long and short “flash” pieces, take place in and around the greater Philadelphia area, where McAdams grew up, and south Florida, where he currently resides. The regions exist in conversation with each other in their mutual grittiness, against the background of motel pools, urban backyards, and rehabilitation centers.
Addiction, rehabilitation, and the blurry line between patient and caregiver are repeating themes. In “Meran,” a man struggles to care for his sick partner, but his refusal to accept her condition drives them apart and reactivates his own demons. “Holy Aurations” follows a substance-abuse counselor in Lancaster infatuated with an exotic dancer. She reaches out to him for help with her addiction, but ends up supporting him as he deals with his own health crisis.
Technology and trust
Technology is the other drug of choice in Ambushing the Void, functioning as both a balm and a barrier to relationships and coping with trauma. In one of the collection’s lighter offerings, “Such Strange Suns,” a blind teenager and her father treat Alexa with godlike reverence, such control the device has over their lives. In “Multiverses,” a widower believes that his late wife is reaching out to him through Facebook, LinkedIn, and Match.com.
Perhaps the strongest threads running through the collection are trust and authenticity. Catfishers and trolls abound in communities where people are at their most vulnerable. In “Ambushing the Void I,” a salesman infiltrates an addiction meeting to sell his product. In “Theory of Mind,” a writer gets a job writing “cons,” bad reviews for competing businesses, only to have the toxicity from his work seep into the rest of his life.
McAdams’s characters flee the world and its cruelties, though they continue to feel the inexorable pull. In “Little Curly,” a college student with a degenerative disease seeks refuge in the house of his kind and lonely professor, but rejects her hospitality for the anonymity of a residence home. “Nobody’s Children” follows survivors of a juvenile home who have created “the Hostel,” their own fragile community in Lancaster. It’s “an expression or protestation that they didn’t want to participate in the world, that it was through resistance and isolation that they expected to express or locate their true selves, if such things existed.” And yet, despite this solipsism, “the Hostiles,” as the inhabitants are called, can’t help but desire connection: “the whole point of the Hostel was sharing, trust, commitment: values that couldn’t be found in the outside world.”
McAdams is unsentimental and unrelenting in examining the callowness and weaknesses of his characters. But each story offers glimpses of redemption, forgiveness, and grace, if not resolution. He also allows for gentle and generous irony. “Where We Marched, His Final Years,” depicts a son taking his conservative father, now plagued with dementia, to a series of politically progressive marches and rallies. In “My Friend Joe,” a Turkish immigrant graduating from nursing school comes to the aid of a MAGA-proud plumber and appropriates his story of addiction for her valedictorian speech so that she does not have to share her own.
If the ongoing pandemic has you feeling isolated, anxious, and disconnected, Ambushing the Void, while not comforting, assures you that you are not alone.
What, When, Where
Ambushing the Void. By James McAdams. Philadelphia: Frayed Edge Press, 2020. 150 pages, paperback; $18.00. Get it here.