Livability: Stories BY Jon Raymond. Bloomsbury USA. Paperback, 272 pages. $15.

The cover of Livability: Stories

Anyone who saw the 2005 film Old Joy, which is based on the lead story in Livability, will immediately understand what I mean when I say that Jon Raymond is a master at re-creating those feelings of unease and confusion that arise when relationships are at their most precarious. Most of the nine poignantly restrained stories in this collection feature anxious characters who test the limits of social and personal responsibility, subjecting themselves to isolation and ruin.

Set in the Pacific Northwest, Raymond’s tales focus on people who are desperate, either to make a connection or to hold on to one that’s about to disintegrate. In “Old Joy,” among the collection’s best efforts, two college friends meet up after their lives have led them in different directions, and the narrator’s pain is evident even as he attempts to impart an easygoing mood. Reminded of his friend’s often grating personality, he observes, “I had forgotten the mild struggle we fell into every time we found each other again.”

“The Wind” features a boy who trains for a fistfight he wants nothing to do with, simply to fit in with the cool kids. His admiration for the other boys and the self-doubt and uncertainty surrounding his quest for approval are painfully exposed: “He was a quick study of the code of conduct, a strict system of alternating sadism and empathy, whose poles, he had found, could reverse almost any time.” In “Benny,” a young man tries to track down a junkie friend, at the request of the friend’s dying father. It gradually becomes clear that he has undertaken the search less out of concern for Benny than to satisfy a debt to their withered friendship. After a fruitless hunt, he nonchalantly remarks, “I gave up searching for Benny for a few months. I’d done my due diligence, I figured, and I had my own problems to worry about.”

An overriding melancholy is evoked by the often rainy, rural settings, as well as by the spartan language. In “Train Choir,” a homeless young woman named Verna struggles to make a trip accompanied only by her dog, Lucy. After shoplifting dog food, getting caught, and returning to the spot where she’d left Lucy hours earlier, Verna is exhausted but frantic: “The car was exactly as she had left it, sitting on the side of the street, and she closed the last distance at a trot. But no Lucy.” Frequently in Livability, the characters’ straightforward assessments of the world impart a sense of inevitability. One, a guarded artist, claims that it’s impossible to describe objects with mere words because things are “inherently so complex that explanation seemed almost irrelevant. At their best, they made words disappear.” Raymond’s delicate touch allows his readers to incrementally register this and other uncertainties, and his artful rendering of life’s defining moments reveals how we are all engaged in ceaseless self-evaluation.