Therapists would have a diagnostic field day with the cast of Holiday Reinhorn's debut story collection, "Big Cats"...

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Therapists would have a diagnostic field day with the cast of Holiday Reinhorn’s debut story collection, “Big Cats” (Free Press, 214 pp., $14.95). Some of the characters conjured here have anger-management issues. Others are too sizzled by grief to see straight. All of them have substance abuse lurking in their background.

But as anyone who has been through analysis knows, identifying a problem sometimes just makes it worse. At the very least it can make you aware you’re unable to stop. And so one after the other, the cast and crew of “Big Cats” pinwheel toward crackups, knowing all along their “triggers” have been set off.

There is something rather heartbreaking about how aware Reinhorn’s characters are of their own sorry state. After all, wouldn’t you rather be blind-sided by a bus than struck by a train that’s been bearing down on you for miles?

That appears to be the metaphorical dilemma of the hero in “Get Away from Me, David.” After an earthquake rattles his place of work, Reinhorn’s alcoholic bank manager begins to see visions of his dead wife. Somehow, hearing his “sponsor” tell him over the phone that he is not alone doesn’t help.

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Author appearance

Holiday Reinhorn will read from “Big Cats,” 7:30 tonight, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or

David is not the only damaged soul here trying to get by on compromised means. “My Name” features a Vietnam vet who starts up a relationship with a catatonic woman. The narrator of “Seashell” minces through the days, knowing deep down that his developmental disability cuts him off from the world. Sad to say, these are the most well-adjusted of the lot.

Unlike David Foster Wallace, who sometimes sneers at the loners and misfits he brings to life, Reinhorn treats her characters with fairness and dignity. She does not describe their ailments with Excessive Capitalization, for example, nor does she coat them with a blanket of irony.

This allows their problems to rise to the fore. What exactly is appropriate about turning a dead child’s room into a shrine, wonders the grieving mother in “Good to Hear You.” In “The Heights,” a tipsy woman swerves into another inappropriate story about her husband’s philandering. Her social gaffe is made all the more cringe-worthy by the fact that her husband is sitting right next to her, incapacitated by a stroke.

It bears mentioning that although Reinhorn saddles her big cats up with the big problems, she also leavens the rodeo with big-time humor. If you don’t laugh aloud at least once while reading this collection, I think there’s a chance you do in fact need medication.

Just take a gander at this zingy, zippy first line: “If you’re wondering what I’m doing in Junie Greenough’s covered pickup on the shoulder of a public highway, with a cooler full of Viennese horse sperm locked in the back, well, that would be today’s very good question.”

Not all of Reinhorn’s stories find the right balance between humor and cynicism, and a few do a downright belly-flop in the process. “Golden Pioneers” and “Good to Hear You” both unfold in a removed first-person voice that makes it difficult to tell whether you’re supposed to care about the narrator or the protagonists of her stories.

This is a minor gaffe, however, in a very promising debut. For when Reinhorn is on — which is most of the time — she can spin a tale so strange and singular, it has its own magnetic warble. Were it not for its cutesy title, the lead story would be a pitch-perfect riff on the casual brutality of our teenage years. And “Get Away From Me, David” might just be the strangest thing to appear between two covers since George Saunders’ “Civilwarland in Bad Decline.”

So readers beware. Read these stories with a squinty eye and an open heart, just don’t expect to be unaffected. Cart them onto public transport and you might resemble one of its characters: a person sitting in public laughing at something imaginary — or in some cases crying.

John Freeman is a writer in New York.