Sex is a fraught subject in April Ayers Lawson's impressively polished debut collection of stories. The audacious but vulnerable young Southerners who populate these five tales live in a world where the ordinary uncertainties of relationships and physical intimacy are amplified and distorted by their devout, fundamentalist Christian upbringing, and in several cases, a history of childhood sexual abuse. Despite her limpid, supple prose, there's a creepy cast to Lawson's vision, with shades of Flannery O'Connor's dark humor and Southern Gothic sensibility.
Lawson's sheltered characters struggle with "misplaced affection" and inappropriate attractions – whether their own or those of others. In the richly nuanced title story, which made a splash when it won the 2011 George Plimpton Award for Fiction, a young husband wrestles with extramarital temptation and bafflement over his unfathomable, emotionally inaccessible wife. "The Way You Must Play Always" is a coming-of-age tale about a pubescent girl who, caught fooling around with her cousin, develops an even more problematic crush on her strange piano teacher's sour, dying brother.
In "Vulnerability," the longest story, about a dicey but life-altering affair, Lawson has room to show off her skill. It begins with a straightforward declaration that sets the events firmly in the past: "Once I fell for my art dealer." When the narrator's paintings — of strangers who remind her of the family friend/babysitter who molested her as a child — attract the attention of a New York gallerist, she channels her "vague unrest" and frustration with her distant, depressed husband into an unhealthy fixation on this dealer.
Tunneling deep into the artist's wounded psyche, Lawson captures her obsessive re-examination of her risky behavior from all sides – which results in a tricky narrative that frequently switches perspectives. Her confessional first person periodically gives way to the more distant, out-of-body present-tense third-person point of view, which is particularly well-suited to the couple's brutally alienating intercourse: "She has no feelings about the act. He doesn't seem put off but rather turned on by the stunned-animal quality of her." Yet despite their warped dynamic, the woman confesses well after their affair has ended that "In my dreams he appeals to me still."
Writing convincingly from the male perspective in "The Negative Effects of Homeschooling," Lawson depicts adolescent desire with humor and warmth. Conner, the earnest, homeschooled narrator, is touchingly aware of his social awkwardness as he tries to connect with one of the few girls he meets through church and wrap his head around his mother's complex friendship with a transgender woman who has recently died. He has an ungainly but endearing knack for saying or doing the wrong thing, as when "for no reason, I ran into my room one day and tried to hurdle my desk chair" — a mishap that sidelines him from soccer for the season, further exacerbating his social isolation. And he becomes obsessed with Andrew Wyeth's nude portraits of Helga, about whom he comments with remarkable acuity, "She looked more real than real life. Always alone but also not alone, because the pictures were so full of want. Sometimes I didn't know where Wyeth's want ended and mine began."
In Lawson's intense stories, desire is often coupled with shame, and a yearning to overcome an inability to connect is often scantily cloaked in risqué clothing. Her characters must reconcile the hellish, unending afterlife of childhood abuse with a culture in which John Lennon's "Imagine" is "deemed sacrilegious because of the line, 'Imagine there's no heaven.'" Against a background of suppressed passions and sublimation, Virgin and Other Stories zeroes in on the hard-won, highly charged moments of awakening in these conflicted lives.