Christopher Coake does a remarkable job of unpacking the minds of a surprising variety of characters — a harried mom of a toddler, a group of day laborers unloading drums of toxic waste, a lovelorn lesbian, a waitress, a man with 40 extra pounds around his midsection. Each story has an unexpected plot turn or discovery, exploring decisions we might have seen coming, but hoped would be otherwise. His people are ordinary and unsettlingly familiar. You Would Have Told Me Not To (Delphinium Books) is a collection of real-life studies of what goes on around us every day, what we don’t see, what we think and don’t reveal.

The story of the title tracks a few days in the life of a family balancing divorce, separation, love and a delicate mix of all of it. Word that her only child has been shot is delivered to Suzanne. She’s divorced, alone and driving through the snow to the hospital where her son, from whom she has been estranged for months, lies with a bullet somewhere inside him. She can’t get details.  

But when all the pieces are scattered together in the same room: the wounded son, his girlfriend, her ex-husband (surprise) and Suzanne, slightly drunk and baffled by it all, each of them has to make sense of what’s happening, make it all work. Information tumbles out and needs to be sorted, carefully, but no one is quite sure how. The story even ends with a question.

The other stories in the book are as richly layered as this one. A man lies to a grieving woman he has only just met, another just cannot break up with the woman who loves him and a girl decides that lust is more important than loyalty. Women doubt if they’re good mothers, men abuse their wives, everyone stumbles.

What’s memorable about Coake’s writing is that every sentence is worth reading. There’s a sticky cadence that stops the reader from skipping over paragraphs to get the next event in the plot. It’s the journey here that matters, not the ending. In fact, readers will be unhappy that they’ve come to the last page of the book. 

You Would Have Told Me Not To is Coake’s second collection of short stories which  followed his debut You Came Back, a novel about love, loss, grieving and ghosts. In this new collection of stories, Coake continues to explore the ordinary and expose the extraordinary in everyday lives. 

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Photo: Theresa Danna-Douglas

Christopher Coake is the author of the novel You Came Back (Grand Central Publishing, 2012) and the story collection We’re in Trouble (Harcourt, 2005), which won the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for a first work of fiction. His new collection, You Would Have Told Me Not To, will be published in 2020 by Delphinium. In 2007 he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.

His short fiction has been anthologized in collections such as Best American Mystery Stories 2004The Best American Noir of the Century; and Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories; and has been published in numerous literary journals. A native of Indiana, Coake received his MFA in fiction from the Ohio State University and his MA in fiction from Miami University of Ohio. He is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he directs the MFA program in creative writing. He lives in Reno with his wife, Stephanie Lauer, and their two dogs.