Not only arc the people and animals excessive in how they look and move: they are equally extreme in their behavior, reactions, and relationships. In "Lake Stink" the narrator's mother, referred to as Annie, has run off with his father's business partner, a man he called "Uncle Ajax" (who--as the narrator does not learn until he is 31--wasn't his real uncle). His father, Roland, a CPA/lawyer who talks like an illiterate, desperate to keep his wife, "phones, writes, telegraphs, drives to Salt Lake, leaves notes, sends flowers, buys pewter, sterling silver, diamonds . . . antique Valentines"; he also--despite an injunction--follows Annie and Ajax to spy on them, at times lurking in the house of the narrator's neighbor, Henriquet, at others living in a sheep camp near Tooele, Utah. Henriquet, a French-speaking Cuban refugee who plays an increasingly important role in the story, keeps chickens in his yard, where he also has built a miniature golf course and where he creates bird sculptures out of junk metal. Golf figures significantly in the story, the narrator telling of matches with Ajax and of driving balls from a tee on his lawn into the lake, Henriquet challenging Ajax to a miniature round and ending up whacking at him with a putter. Characters are in constant motion, driving this way and that. The story ends with Roland in the cab of his old Ford pickup, six-shooters on the dashboard, about to pursue Annie and Ajax to Wyoming where "he won't let Annie find herself." The narrator is "filled with admiration and respect and--well, there's no other word for it--love for the old guy."
This story in all its baroque complexities typifies the thin line Spencer straddles between excess and success. "Lake Stink" ends up a collection of ludicrous antics, the characters more whimsical than convincing, the narrator's final emotion just words. Our Secret's Out is filled with alienation, threat, and violence, even murder. But, as with cartoons, it's usually hard to believe that anybody is suffering real pain. Spencer wants his characters to take on mythic qualities, though the results are usually closer to caricature.
Yet this collection deserves admiration and respect. Spencer sets up handicaps for himself as a writer, concocting a disparate assortment of people, behaviors, and events, and then finds a way to make everything cohere into a single story. In that sense he almost always succeeds, achieving feats of association. The results are clever, unique, and engaging. But most lack an emotional impact. Spencer's stories can be moving, as in "Nothing Sad, Once You Look At It," which takes the familiar situation of a couple breaking up and engages it with original people and fresh results. However, they are more likely to be amusingly peculiar, using the ingenuity of their invention only to dazzle the reader.