Steven Sherrill's Joy, PA (Louisiana State University Press, 238 pp., $22.50) is a novel about a supremely dysfunctional family. Burns Augenbaugh, a veteran of the first Iraq War, has PTSD and a prescription-drug addiction and has barely left his basement in years. His wife, Abigail, is a fundamentalist Christian whom a radio preacher has convinced the world is about to end. And son Willie, 10, is guided by the twin poles of his well-earned insecurity and his compensatory belief that he has superpowers. Sherrill cycles through three points of view: a stream-of-consciousness first-person for Willie; a deliberately unreliable second-person for Burns; and a cut-and-dried third-person for Abigail.
But there's a fourth main character: the fictional, eponymous small Pennsylvania town itself, with its improbable Slinky factory, its broken dreams, its right and wrong sides of the tracks, on which map the Augenbaugh family is easily placed. Sherrill, a professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State, Altoona, is an inventive and resourceful writer. Still, his greatest knack is for maintaining empathy for his quietly (or loudly) desperate characters even as he somehow plots his book so that a narrative climax feels almost continuously imminent.
Vortex (Fantasist Enterprises, 268 pp., $17) is the third and final book of local author Lawrence C. Connolly's "Veins" cycle. In a note to readers, Connolly says we need not have read Veins or Vipers to comprehend this installment. But such preparation might not hurt in a horror-fantasy story set in Southwestern Pennsylvania that in its first 50 pages includes: a giant mine fire; a dam-break that engulfs a small town; winged serpents; the kidnapping of a strip-club manager by a hit man who's an ex-preacher; intercessions by Native American spiritual beings; and a woman who's been temporarily turned into a snake hungrily feasting on what might be the roasted arm of Satan.
Connolly handles such material with dry wit, in short chapters that feel like movie scenes, with plenty of cliffhangers. But Vortex (as its title suggests) really does have an apocalyptic feel: Those winged serpents portend a reckoning. With its teeming plot and huge cast — many living, some dead, not a few of them otherworldly — you keep reading Veins not just to see how the characters will get out of it, but also how the writer will.