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BOOK REVIEW

Her Kansas-set short stories brim with grim humor and loss

Antonya Nelson stresses emotional extremes. Antonya Nelson stresses emotional extremes. (Marion ettlinger)
By Julie Wittes Schlack
March 5, 2009
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Many of the stories in "Nothing Right," the wonderful new collection by Antonya Nelson, take place in Kansas. And to this impressionable Northeasterner's eye, they reflect their setting, full of emotional extremes that mirror those of Kansas weather and broad, flat vistas that throw subtle domestic drama into sharp relief. The fluid, often funny writing and concentrated narrative arc of these stories make it easy to speed through them, but readers should resist the temptation. Slow down and savor every page, because the characters are vivid and flawed and achingly real, the humor suitably grim, and the undertones of loss almost palpable.

In the title story, Hannah, the divorced mother of two mercurial teenage sons, looks around a high school gym full of other parents knowing that "whatever she saw as deficits in these people, they themselves recognized. They, too, wished not to seem sad and skittish. They wished they were trim and brave and confident." Hannah's vision is neither maudlin nor harsh; she is passive but clear-eyed (when she's not overindulging in wine, as she is prone to do). But when her son impregnates his sluggish and disturbed girlfriend, Hannah finds common ground with him as the two of them raise the baby. She cuts back to a glass of wine a day, Leo lands an after-school job as a dishwasher at Red Lobster, and a story that could be sentimental or bleak is instead bracing. There is no happy-ever-after, just baby steps on the path to subtle transformation.

Slightly unconventional domestic arrangements like this one provide the context for several other stories. In "Kansas," a formerly nihilistic high school girl, her baby cousin, and her senile grandmother together form a more stable, healthy family unit than the anxious, barely functional sets of parents they live with. In "Or Else," a young man annually breaks into and inhabits the vacation house of a childhood friend, believing that both this home and the family that owns it should be his.

Extramarital affairs are central to several stories as well, with lovers careening off each other like billiard balls, using the impact of their collision to set them on a new course in life. Love is less a celebration than a medicine, sometimes corrective, sometimes creating bigger problems than what it set out to cure.

In "Falsetto," perhaps the most exquisitely poignant story in this collection, Michelle, a 29-year-old college junior, returns to Montana with her 21-year-old boyfriend in the wake of a serious car accident involving her parents, to stay with her much younger brother, Ellton. The temperature is frigid, the pace of life slow, but Michelle's vision is acute despite the many beers with which she anesthetizes herself. And when her mother finally dies on a brilliantly sunny morning and Michelle braces herself to tell Ellton, who is "so fearless, yet so unprotected," she thinks suddenly of "those falling-down fences that you saw all over Montana. . . . These fences tempted you to stop and park your car, jump out, and set them right. They seemed just that obviously and simply broken."

Nelson's insight and language are also that obviously and simply gorgeous. There is not a single thing wrong with "Nothing Right."

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.

NOTHING RIGHT By Antonya Nelson

Bloomsbury, 296 pp., $25

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