Keith Lesmeister, who grew up in Cedar Rapids and now lives in Decorah and teaches at Luther College and Northeast Iowa Community College, has penned a collection of short stories set in Iowa. “We Could’ve Been Happy Here” is, as the title suggests, a collection featuring characters whose lives are not all they hope for. Many are trying to do better; few are succeeding.
Several of the stories are set in Cedar Rapids, including “Today You’re Calling Me Lou,” in which a young man tries to help his firecracker of a grandmother celebrate her birthday, and “A Basketball Story,” in which twins obsessed with basketball grow apart for the first time. Local readers will recognize the neighborhoods and landmarks in these stories.
His characters find themselves in conflict not just with other people or with themselves, but with the natural world. Cows escape, a badger evades a trap, rabbits are systematically exterminated by two children, a deer leads two hunters on a chase after an errant shot fails to bring the animal down. Lesmeister’s Iowa is a place where civilization — which is on a shaky foundation for these characters — and the wild are, for better or worse, intertwined.
“Burrowing Animals,” a story in which an adult son returns to his parents’ home in an effort to avoid a relapse into drug abuse, is among the strongest stories in the collection. Set in Cedar Rapids, the story delves into the different but linked troubles that threaten to undo father and son. The story is sad but edges toward hopeful at the end before the narrator extinguishes the fragile glimmer of hope. It’s a powerful moment at the end of a beautifully structured story.