In his stunning debut novel Well, 26-year-old author Matthew McIntosh writes with a calm, almost anthropological solemnity about a loose collection of lost souls living in a suburb of Seattle called Federal Way. Everyone he writes about is damaged or broken or empty in some crucial way, but McIntosh never goes near bathos or melodrama. It's as if he's observing their behavior through a microscope and describing every detail in the dispassionate tones of a scientist. But this reportorial detachment in no way makes the book seem cold. McIntosh's characters feel real enough to sock you in the eye. The novel has been compared to Raymond Carver's Short Cuts; it's a series of monologues and vignettes, some interconnected, all focusing on the constant human struggle to go on when you can't go on and to understand why you should bother. The Carver comparison fits, but McIntosh's material has more to do with the likes of Hubert Selby Jr. There are druggies and drug pushers, welfare queens, wife beaters, ex-fighters, barflies, bartenders, adulterous spouses in grim apartments. There's an outcast high-school kid who stalks a girl until her father is driven to violence. There are clerks, waitresses and students, all with dark secrets. Many of these people have debilitating physical or mental ailments, but what they're all really missing is that fix, that thing they can cling to, and so they lash out at each other or bash their heads against the wall or simply sink even deeper into the well. "What's the use of crying and holding on to each other and talking in soft, soothing voices (or even asking each other what we're thinking about) when what we need is really something different and that is just to be saved," one character muses, and it's the question that runs throughout the book. McIntosh doesn't give us the answers, but he's a master at dissecting the people who are grappling with the question. Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.

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