The Samaritan impulse

The Good Samaritan by Theodule Ribot. Source: Musee des beaux-arts de Pausource: Musee des beaux-arts de Pau

The Reluctant Samaritan would be an apt alternate title for Tim Gautreaux’s illuminating and entertaining collection of stories, populated as it is by characters who are drawn, often unwillingly but ineluctably, into the lives of others. Many of these grudging altruists are service providers by profession—story titles include “The Piano Tuner,” “The Bug Man” and “The Furnace Man’s Lament”—but their efforts transcend vocation. They restore not only ancient typewriters, boilers, sewing machines and radios, but also relationships, confidence and faith.

Signalsby Tim Gautreaux

Knopf. 384p $26.95

Though the outcomes of their interventions are usually salutary, their doubts keep them humble. Take Mr. Todd of “The Furnace Man’s Lament,” who declines a plea to foster an orphaned 15-year-old but takes the boy under his wing as an apprentice and teaches him the invaluable skill of bringing warmth to cold places. Years later, when he learns that his protégé runs a successful heating business abroad, he reacts with a mixture of pride and regret, wondering if giving Jack a job was enough when the boy really wanted a home. He reflects on the “thin line that made [a child] mine and not mine,” and, haunted by an opportunity lost, he wonders, “How far do you have to go” in service to others? This question resonates throughout Gautreaux’s collection. In “Deputy Sid’s Gift,” a penitent confesses surrendering a derelict truck to shelter a homeless man “mostly to make myself feel good.” The priest assures him that there was “only one thing worse than [doing] what [he] did…not doing it,” but his conscience remains unassuaged.

'How far do you have to go' in service to others? This question resonates throughout Gautreaux’s collection.

Gautreaux’s stories range from broadly comic (“Easy Pickings,” “Died and Gone to Vegas”) to deeply tragic (“Gone to Water”). The Southern setting of many of the stories, Gautreaux’s humor and irony, his adroit narrative structure and his colorful characters invite comparison to Flannery O’Connor. And certainly he creates his share of eccentrics: the handyman who strives to earn just enough to remove the costly and extravagant tattoo of Jesus that covers his back; the novice writer who stalks the author of a negative review on Amazon; the nonagenarian who claims she and her husband delayed divorce for 73 years because they “wanted to wait until the children were dead.”

But these characters are not grotesque, as O’Connor’s can be, and Gautreaux never succumbs to caricature. He’s funny but not mean, and the laughter his stories evoke is neither superior nor condescending. He passes on to the reader his generosity of spirit toward the imperfect but decent folk he writes about, and their triumphs, however minor, satisfy. In “Good for the Soul,” for instance, a complacent priest, accustomed to being “fussed over” by the “sweet, sweet women of the parish…as if he were an old spayed tomcat who kept the cellar free of rats,” embarks upon a foolish mission as a result of a confidence revealed to him in the confessional. His efforts get him arrested, twice; they tarnish his reputation and invoke the disapproval of his bishop. But Gautreaux ends the story on a wry, understated note of victory that validates the priest’s ill-advised mischief.

He’s funny but not mean, and the laughter his stories evoke is neither superior nor condescending.

Varied are the do-gooders in Gautreaux’s stories—the swimmer who unhappily takes work rescuing would-be suicides who hurl themselves off the side of a floating casino; the grandfather who counteracts the education his grandchildren get from reality TV, celebrity magazines and indifferent parents by enthralling them with the story of Abraham; the stewardess who befriends the steely and suspicious widow of a fellow she had been great “pals” with. The snares of loneliness, desperation and stagnation lurk in the corners of the universe Gautreaux constructs, but they are almost always circumvented by the Samaritan impulse, by simple good will.

Even domestic life is filled with disappointment, but shifts in perspective affirm its value. In “Wings,” a widow dismisses what she regards as her husband’s collection of junk until an appraiser inspects it and concludes, “He must have been quite a guy,” triggering in her a belated appreciation of “the importance of objects” and of the man who accumulated them. In the final story in Signals, the beautiful, poignant “What We Don’t See in the Light,” the ill and aging Joe Adoue leaves Louisiana, unaccompanied, for the healthier climate of New Mexico because he literally “cannot breathe” in the home he has made with his wife, “a stern little woman who…had held the family together like an ugly glue job.” Once apart, their exchange of letters recalls for Joe their correspondence when they were dating and he was in the army. When she visits after several months, having heard from a concerned stranger that Joe had temporarily fallen ill again, they are both transformed. Softening her hard edges, she admits that she “began to see [him] only when [he] left,” and he breathes easier. Like relics in other stories, their marriage is revitalized.

“Too many people glanced at the surface of things and ignored what was inside,” Gautreaux writes in “The Safe.” In the 21 stories that comprise this collection, characters look deeply enough to recognize the needs and longings of acquaintances and strangers. The acts they undertake and the connections they make improve the lives of their beneficiaries even as they ennoble the benefactors themselves.

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