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Short stories make the most of Kentucky setting

Nothing Like an Ocean: StoriesBy Jim Tomlinson. University Press of Kentucky. 176 pp. $24.95.

Hold the skepticism when you hear that Berea author Jim Tomlinson's new book, Nothing Like an Ocean, takes place in the fictional town of Spivey, Ky. If you've attended creative-writing classes in Central Kentucky or picked up an existing collection by local authors, you know that short stories set in rural Kentucky are a dime a dozen around here.

It's easy for that local connection to be the only tool an author uses to anchor readers. If the reader is a native Kentuckian, perhaps that's enough. (It's been said we're second only to Texans in home-state pride.) But it can cripple readers from other states who have only heard rumors or seen TV news reports about what life in Appalachia is like.

By the end of the first story in the collection, perhaps with a sigh of relief, you'll realize that Tomlinson has taken the Kentucky setting and turned it into something universal. Spivey could just as easily be an urban block of Atlanta or a flat industrial town in Indiana.

Perhaps such a voice comes naturally to one who is not a Kentucky native. Having lived much of his life in small towns in Illinois and Rhode Island, Tomlinson moved to Versailles in 1995. He then moved to Berea in 1999 and began writing full-time.

Nothing Like an Ocean, the latest in the University Press of Kentucky's Kentucky Voices series, is Tomlinson's second published collection, although from reading it, one might imagine he has been writing all of his 65 years. (His first book, Things Kept, Things Left Behind, was published by University of Iowa Press in 2006 after winning the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award.)

With his current collection, Tomlinson has the good grace not to beat us over the head with the Kentucky connection, but local-proud readers can take delight in his recurring mentions of Spivey's within-driving-distance neighbors — Somerset, Lexington and Louisville — which don't feel gratuitously placed.

As with all good meaty, emotional reads, characters carry the stories. Tomlinson has nurtured his characters like a loving parent, and you'd be hard-pressed not to find yourself caring for one or two.

What makes them special is Tomlinson's ability to write across all spectrums.

In Angel, His Rabbit, and Kyle McKell, we are presented with the story of a young camera-store worker, her Hispanic boyfriend and a gay, maimed Iraq war vet. In The Persistence of Ice, we meet the unfortunately named Lisle A. Titsworth Jr., a teacher who faces perpetual bad luck and ridicule from his class. In Singing Second Part, it's a 15-year-old Appalachian girl with dreams of attending college. In A Male Influence in the House, it's a 12-year-old boy who breaks into an empty house to get high in a dangerous way.

Most impressively, regardless of who the story is centered on, the characters are believable. Their voices never seem to be the author's rather than their own, although they all share the world-wisdom of their creator.

Some folks enjoy short stories because they eliminate the "one more chapter" syndrome. Such readers appreciate the comfort of hearing a tale from start to finish in one sitting.

Don't count on that with Nothing Like an Ocean. The wisdom, the humor, the characters and the mysteries will keep you saying, "Just one more story." The collection will whittle away an evening effortlessly.

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