Although Mary Troy's first collection of short stories is named after this man, Joe Baker is only a peripheral character in each of the nine stories. In fact, he is alive only during the first story; yet his presence is felt throughout Joe Baker Is Dead. In "Divine Light," Mary Alice Conroy, a middle-aged woman about to enter a convent, seduces Joe on her last night of freedom. The second story, "This Too Shall Pass," finds Bucknell Pastor attending the funeral of Joe Baker with his carpool acquaintance—Joe's ex-lover. A later story involves a young girl who works in the beauty salon where Joe's widow has her hair done. In the concluding story, "Faithfully Departed," Joe's son and namesake is held at gunpoint on the anniversary of his father's death.
Using the character of Joe Baker, Troy playfully creates a simple thread of connection among all of the stories in the collection. Yet Joe Baker is not the only unifying force. Each story is set in St. Louis, especially in the southern part of the city, creating a distinctive urban flavor replete with working-class neighborhoods, corner bars, crumbling shotgun houses, hair salons, and dances in church basements. More important than the city or Joe Baker, however, is faith—faith in the future, in what has been taught, in the responses of others, and in oneself.
Exploring such issues of faith, "On Iron Street" presents the inner world of four uniquely distressed families that inhabit a small apartment complex; Joe Baker's widow, who cannot fathom her life without her deceased husband; an overweight, handicapped woman who anonymously writes erotic pulp fiction; a young couple with extreme marital problems; and an older couple who must work through one partner's mental afflictions. Troy gracefully and humorously weaves her way through each troubled apartment, creating an overall sense of connection despite each character's individual plights.
In this lively and appealing debut work, Troy explores life in all its offbeat and often tragic moments. She presents characters who are searching for solutions to dilemmas only partly of their own making. They are connected to others by weaker bonds than they want or need and, though intelligent, are often guided by attitudes of acceptance and fear. Yet instead of leaving the reader with pathos, Joe Baker Is Dead finds humor in a world with little hope, proving that "all was as it should be. It was possible to go on."