Perhaps the title of Jason Brown’s second story collection, Why the Devil Chose New England For His Work, begins with an interrogative because this is a book that believes in right and wrong answers. Most of the eleven tales describe exceptional instances in the lives of the residents of Vaughn, a fictional Maine town. It might be more accurate, however, to say that the town does the telling. Right-minded, rigid, yet deeply conflicted, Vaughn’s inhabitants collectively struggle to repress their less virtuous instincts. It’s no wonder that the devil chose this semimythical rural New England burg: No place could more vividly illustrate the nuanced conflict between good and evil.
Most families in Vaughn seem to share the same stories. When one of the Ingersoll men offers a description of his ancestors, it is as though any one of the town’s citizens could lay claim to it: “Our family had never been wealthy or influential . . . but we liked to think we were intelligent and sturdy. . . . We also liked to think that we had always, from the beginning, come down on the right side of things, even when it was dangerous to do so.” The men work in lumber; some women spend their days at the library. Just beyond their parents’ influence, Vaughn’s sons and daughters reckon with troubled siblings and their own confused impulses.
The distinctions between the protagonists are largely inconsequential. Instead, the animating factors in Brown’s carefully staged morality plays are the presence of temptation and the desire not to fall. A boy is led to the edge of the train tracks by a new friend, who has devilishly dark bangs and bony limbs; a man watches half-enviously as his older brother slips off a boat and disappears into the water. It’s hard not to imagine these plots as literary articulations of what the town patriarch, a history teacher, calls “field tests,” in which students “reenact certain events and speak in the voice of important figures.” But the fact that Brown’s stories read like allegories makes them no less surprising; what is most original about them is, in fact, their sincerity.
In the first story, Vaughn’s loveliest daughter skips town with its most rebellious boy. The reader is certain that the danger exists in the character of the boyfriend, and with increasing fervor, a chorus of grown men imagines what might happen to the girl. Yet the real trouble lies in what an overheated mob might do when they find the couple. The struggle is between a coercive imagination and decency. That Brown presents these themes with such intelligence and conviction suffuses his writing with a sense of integrity. Imagine The Virgin Suicides within an ethical framework. These are stories that truly have some weight to them.