Some of the eight stories in ZZ Packer’s debut collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead), feature ambitious young African-Americans looking to improve their lives: in “Our Lady of Peace” idealistic Lynnea moves from rural Kentucky to Baltimore to teach inner-city kids; in “Geese” Dina travels to Tokyo “in the hopes of making a pile of money.” Both wind up sorely disillusioned–which in itself is a welcome change from the glut of feel-good empowerment fiction out these days. Packer, a much-hyped writer whose career took off when she was included in the New Yorker’s 2000 Debut Fiction issue, throws quite a few curveballs in this collection. In the opening story, “Brownies,” a black Brownie troop encounters a white Brownie troop on a camping trip. Wondering if they’re like the white girls they see on TV–“ponytailed and full of energy, bubbling over with love and money”–they plan to pound them, but when the white troop turns out to be one for “delayed learners” the girls learn that life’s cruelties aren’t restricted to their side of the tracks. But some of the scenarios seem implausible–“Speaking in Tongues” concerns a churchgoing 14-year-old who runs away from her guardian to find the mother who abandoned her, then falls under the sway of a smooth-talking dope dealer and escapes with the help of a proverbial whore with a heart of gold. Packer’s talent for characterization and dialogue go over best when she dispenses with formula and pat resolutions and keeps the reader guessing at the end. Packer will read from and sign copies of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere twice this weekend. Barnes & Noble, 1441 W. Webster, 773-871-3610. Friday, March 28, 8:30 PM. Barbara’s Bookstore, 1100 Lake in Oak Park, 708-848-9140. Saturday, March 29, 7:30 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marion Ettlinger.