The Moss Gatherers
by Matt Briggs
(StringTown Press) $14

There was a time when Matt Briggs's work had never disappointed me. Briggs is a fiction writer in his 30s who, even with a day job, a family, and a commute, had by 2003 produced two impressive books: The Remains of River Names, a book of linked stories about a family spinning apart in squalid Northwest neighborhoods; and Misplaced Alice, a book of stories that are harder to describe. (At gunpoint I'd call them narrative but essentially experimental.) On the strength of these two books, in 2003 Briggs received a Genius Award from this newspaper, which comes with a prize of $5,000, and he was named writer-in-residence at Richard Hugo House. To this day, I flip open Misplaced Alice and am amazed by how good and casual it is. The opening lines are: "This couple who lived in a tall apartment building in the city decided to get a monkey, not a chimpanzee but a little monkey that would fit in a large bird cage. Jared, the man, wanted to get a cage for the monkey because the couple often went out of town and he didn't want the monkey ripping up the place."

I love that.

When Briggs won his Genius Award, he'd already completed his first novel, Shoot the Buffalo, which was supposed to be released by Clear Cut Press in a matter of months. It's been two and a half years. The delay has been on the publisher's end of things, not the author's, and Shoot the Buffalo is going to be available by the end of this summer. In the meantime, Spokane's StringTown Press has published The Moss Gatherers, Briggs's third collection of stories.

As with his first two books, the stories in The Moss Gatherers are set in the Northwest, but this time the Northwest is full of secret meaning and Briggs's descriptions of trees and rivers and rocks read like paeans to trees and rivers and rocks. In Briggs's first two books, almost all of the scenery was bleak, which set him apart from nearly everyone else who's written well about this region. But there's beauty throughout The Moss Gatherers, of the phoned-in and television-ready variety: granite mountains, Douglas firs, rustling corn stalks, the Burke Museum coffee shop. He refers to "the sweet odor of cracked lumber." He sends two characters to Victoria, and on the way we are hit with this sentence: "A thick, rusted cargo ship slowly inched along toward Harbor Island, and the caps of the Olympic Mountains were white." Without belaboring the point, that's a bad sentence—inconsequential to the story but also inconsistent with Briggs' natural tone, heavy with redundant adjectives and that extra adverb (the caps were white? it's inching slowly?)—and anyway it's an uninteresting image to be asked to picture.

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The first story (it's also the title story) is the worst in the book, and the second one isn't very good either (although what happens in the last sentence is great), because in both stories the characters are just vectors operating on planes of pure authorial intention. A good half of the stories seem like embellished outlines—stories not quite ready for publication. And, to make everything worse, the book is riddled with typographical errors (a "grey" here and a "gray" there, a "t,he" over here, lots of dropped hyphens, and inconsistent verb tenses: "Walt peeks out from behind the hood of a truck and muttered something and then went back to work"). It's sloppy.

That said, there are also stories of total originality (see "Reverse Order"), and some of Briggs's narrators are believable and startling—like the Christian woman who narrates "Red Breast." She counsels a young Christian man who's molested some teenage boys and, toward the end of the story, questions him about whether he's sexually attracted to Jesus. "Contagion" is as tense and oblique as a Carver story. And "Earwig" is my favorite: A guy bites into a peach, notices "a kind of woody flavor," looks at it, thinks he sees mold, realizes he sees earwig larva, then sees an earwig scurry out of the pit. He crushes the earwig and jumps in the shower. "The woman I lived with came into the bathroom on some hygiene errand, then, and asked me what I was doing in the shower and I told her I was taking a shower. I didn't tell her I was taking a shower because I had eaten baby earwigs." ■