John Counts had to excuse himself when I called to discuss “Jerry Darn Nation,” his short story about a former Chicago rocker on the skids. A reporter for a north Michigan daily, Counts was covering a cabin fire in the woods. Firemen, he told me, were arriving on snowmobiles.

Counts’s contribution to the Reader‘s 2010 fiction issue covers another kind of conflagration: his desperate, alcoholic Jerry is ready to explode. And so is Jackie, the hero of Eldad Malamuth’s “Customs,” when his nice gesture—he’s bringing kosher hot dogs to his stepfather in Canada—goes awry.

The other three pieces in this year’s collection burn more quietly but no less intensely. DePaul faculty member Daniel Stolar explores the facts and fantasies of a 60-year marriage in “Hymie and Ruth,” while his onetime student, Marco Buscaglia, packs all the pain of adolescence into an evening of shooting alley hoops in “The Specialist.” And Jessie Morrison’s “The Carnival at Bray” deals with another Chicago teen, attempting to cope when her flighty mom finds true love and drags her off to Ireland.

The five stories here were winnowed out of about 200 entries by local author Adam Levin, whose epic novel, The Instructions (McSweeney’s Rectangulars), was excerpted in the November 4 Reader. The very cool images accompanying all five were created by members of the Post Family. —Tony Adler