Published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette April 15, 2018.People who live by strict codes might be a pain to deal with, but they offer great material for darkly comic fiction, as Sharon Dilworth demonstrates in her bracing new short-story collection, “Two Sides, Three Rivers.”Several of the nine stories in this 139-page book are built around such characters, from the curmudgeonly intellectual father-in-law in the opening story, “A Little Learning,” to the hilariously judgmental hippie parents in the closer, “The Burning Man.”In between, there’s the unnamed narrator in “The Cousin in the Backyard” who idolizes iconic anarchist Emma Goldman and won’t even set foot in Homestead shopping complex The Waterfront because it defiles the site of the epochal Homestead Steel Strike of 1892.There’s a lot of comedy in people who won’t bend, and Ms. Dilworth homes in. “A Little Learning” sets the tone for a book largely driven by snappy, snarky dialogue. Wry, dissatisfied narrator Janet spars constantly with “Father-in-law,” who owns a failing bookstore in Shadyside. When she tries to persuade him to take a cheap flight to France, he asks, “When is the earth going to be eaten up by the sun?” “Two billion years,” answers Janet. “Not soon enough if you ask me,” Father-in-law tells her.The book’s title signals another of its characteristics: Not only are most of these stories set in Pittsburgh, but also most are heavily informed by its neighborhoods. Even when Ms. Dilworth’s tone tends ironic, the narratives feel deeply grounded in place. In “The Private Eye,” for instance, a young gumshoe headquartered in pre-gentrified Lawrenceville discovers that when people learn the truth they’ve longed for (and paid for), it doesn’t make them happy; the setting in a nebby neighborhood and the P.I.’s adherence to a romanticized ideal of sleuthing turn the story into poignant comedy.Ms. Dilworth, director of the Creative Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University, is the author of two novels and two previous story collections. Often in “Two Sides, Three Rivers,” she surrounds characters stuck in one rut or another with slightly absurd details.“There Is No Bob” embroils a dysfunctional family in a plot involving a missing mother, a dog that might or might not be dead, a boat captain who is dead, and a Christmas tree farm. “Cousin in the Backyard” opens with a grown man in Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas — he’s the Emma Goldman fan’s husband — and expands to encompass the aforementioned cousin, who inhabits a tent because she can’t bear being indoors.Another regionally rooted story is “Accordions of the Mon Valley,” whose narrator tags along with a friend, a scheming music student, as he buys old accordions at small-town estate sales for pennies on the dollar. As the narrator observes, “Pittsburgh is the song of dead-end towns on each of her three rivers.” The student’s cynical money-making plot sparks a plangent exploration of our attitudes toward history and heritage.The book’s centerpiece is “The Chubby Boy,” in which a middle-class wife and mother tacitly assumes responsibility for a troubled teenager from neighboring working-class Greenfield. Ms. Dilworth tells the story all in the second person, but from two alternating perspectives, the woman’s and the boy’s, and the author spares neither character’s self-deceptions. As she hands herself this surrogate-mother job, the woman thinks: “You were never going to go to Africa and help with village children, but you had always been inspired by these kinds of stories, and you saw yourself in this benevolent role.”At 30 pages, “The Chubby Boy” consumes nearly one-quarter of the collection, but it earns that real estate. Under Sharon Dilworth’s sympathetic but unsentimental gaze, the story takes odd but plausible turns, its characters prickly, contrary, small-minded, vulnerable. It’s a fascinating study of prejudice, social class and more. And it reminds us that while the ability to break out of one’s life patterns can be a blessing, with insufficient introspection it can just as easily be a curse.
Though Rubik’s Cubes are no longer a national obsession, those colorful puzzles may keep coming to mind as you’re reading Sharon Dilworth’s second short-story collection, ‘’Women Drinking Benedictine.’’ Her fiction is just as intricate: whenever one person moves, another is dislodged, and the pattern of the narrative grows more elaborate with each turn. But while someone struggling with a Rubik’s Cube tries to twist everything back into alignment, Dilworth delights in doing the opposite. Characters initially arranged along familiar axes — husband and wife, mother and daughter, boyfriend and girlfriend — soon find themselves on unfamiliar ground.
Sharon Dilworth’s writing is animated and sympathetic, wry and aware. Her characters are vivid and unpredictable.
Year of the Ginkgo confirms that Sharon Dilworth is a remarkably talented writer. She has a keen eye for detail, an effortless, understated style, and an instinct for revealing these uncomfortable dark truths simmering away below polite suburban surfaces.