"The Brown Coast"

from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
by Wells Tower (Picador, $14)

"The Brown Coast" isn't the best story in Wells Tower's newest collection—that would be "Retreat," in which a bitter, hilariously unreliable narrator transforms extreme sibling rivalry into something transcendent—but it's the one that is most likely to take up residence in the reader's brain and never leave.

A man named Bob has so thoroughly destroyed his own life that he has to flee to a friend's cabin to see if there's anything left of himself to salvage. While he learns to get along with his creepy neighbors (you read the story pregnant with the uncomfortable feeling that an unwanted offer of a three-way is always just one sentence away), Bob begins fixing up the cabin and assembling a saltwater aquarium. His realization that in the aquarium of his life, he is not a "splendid fish," but rather probably more of a sea cucumber lolling on the bottom, "built in the image of sewage and cursed with a chemical belch that ruined every lovely thing that drifted near," leaps from Bob's mind to your own, becoming a sturdy nagging doubt.

"The Professor of Atheism"

from Here Comes Another Lesson

by Stephen O'Connor
(Free Press, $15)

"The Professor of Atheism" series in Stephen O'Connor's second collection recurs like a running gag in between the other stories. Each entry launches from a simple premise: Charles, a washed-up, mediocre atheist, finds himself in theological situations. He acquires a pair of angel wings and is born again in the Garden of Eden. O'Connor imagines the glory of religious miracles as something mundane and heaven as a world of heartbreak and lowered expectations. Charles is an existential Wile E. Coyote in a series of sublime metaphysical cartoons.

"Splitters"

from The Surf Guru
by Doug Dorst
(Riverhead Books, $25.95)

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In "Splitters," a deluded academic edits the work of his mother's former lover, a series titled H. A. Quilcock's Profiles in Botany. Quilcock was a misanthropic botanist: He considers all of his peers to be unprofessional idiots and deviants, suggesting that some dabble in pederasty. As Quilcock delightfully picks apart his contemporaries, a profile of his own life comes into focus. And through that image of Quilcock—a failure whose obsession with plants soured his brain—we learn about his posthumous editor, seeing the origins of the same flaw that destroyed the elder man.

Doug Dorst reads Thurs July 22, Elliott Bay Book Company, 7 pm, free.