Feb/Mar 2009

The Real America

Antonya Nelson’s characters hail from places like Houston and Wichita

David Gates


In the title story of Antonya Nelson’s latest collection, Nothing Right, a divorced mother asks her teenage son—who’d once loved to be read to and now balks at writing a paper on Macbeth—why he dislikes literature. “It’s not real,” he says. “Just a bunch of imaginary crap.” Sure, you could give the kid an argument about Shakespeare, and so could the mother if she, like a lot of Nelson’s characters, weren’t worn down by parenthood. She recognizes, as he does not, that something like the story of “a weak king and his bitchy wife” has recently played out “in his own home.” But you also know what the kid means. Though fabulism has a long and rich tradition, from The Divine Comedy and The Tempest through “The Metamorphosis” and The Dead Father to Middlesex and Pastoralia, domestic realism of the sort Nelson practices—a relatively recent invention, dating, in Anglophone literature, only back to the eighteenth century—has the directness and immediacy, and even the bracing philistinism, of Dr. Johnson’s kicking the stone. In another of her stories, a black woman who flips burgers at Arby’s is invited to dinner at the home of well-meaning white bohemians; when she’s served a banana wrapped in sliced ham, she asks, “This what the white people eat?” Both her hosts and the reader feel pain at this woman’s defensive rudeness, but—literarily, at least—Nelson shares her preference for meat and potatoes.

To write about family life in such places as Houston and Wichita may seem both unromantic and—at a time when global themes are more in fashion—willfully parochial. Conflict, though, is still the great—the only—subject of fiction, and as Nelson noted in a 2000 interview with the Missouri Review, you don’t need to go far to find it: “American kids aren’t being recruited into guerrilla armies at the age of thirteen. In some other countries, drama exists elsewhere, outside the house. Most often in America, the trouble seems to come from within the household.” I was going to keep count of the divorces, affairs, teen pregnancies, abortions, problem drinkers, and drug users in these eleven stories, but there was only so much space to scribble in the endpapers. If Nelson’s focus on these dispiritingly familiar miseries is disproportionate—actually, I suspect real-life statistics are on her side—that’s not only her privilege as a fiction writer but arguably her obligation: not in order to diagnose and anatomize social trends, but simply to crank up the tensions that make her stories live and move.

“It just wasn’t fun to be a family anymore,” the divorced mother in the title story realizes. So does the divorced father of her son’s fat, druggy, suicidal, pregnant girlfriend: “I have to check out Niffer every night to see if she’s cutting again. Up her arms, on her belly. It’s just vigilance, my friend, round-the-clock vigilance. . . . My ex doesn’t know the half of it.” The oddly assorted household in “Kansas,” to my mind the best story in the collection, has seven people on its “family cell-phone plan”: a drug-dealing husband, his wine-bibbing wife, the wife’s discontented sister, the sister’s much-older psychiatrist husband (who has kids from two previous marriages), the sister and the psychiatrist’s reformed juvenile-delinquent daughter, and the daughter’s ex-boyfriend and senile grandmother. At least all the relatively happy families—all two of them, in “Or Else” and “We and They”—are alike: with scruffy bohemian-academic parents, some of whose children actually remain undamaged enough to make it to college themselves. Another ramshackle academic family, however, in “obo,” hangs together only because the adulterous father keeps the “recycling bin full of wine bottles”: “Drunk, he could enjoy watching some inane cartoon with Will, stack up blocks and knock them down, stack and knock. Drunk, he could remove sleeping Cecily from beside his sleeping wife and take her to her own bed, then climb in, ignore the damp spot the baby had left for him there, and pass out.”

The distances between Nelson’s characters are most obvious in “obo” and “Or Else,” whose main characters are both pathological liars: a mopey female grad student who gets a deluded crush on a professor’s wife, and a man who brings a new girlfriend to a house in Telluride, Colorado (it belongs to a family he’d taken refuge with as a child; he’s now pretending it’s his own). But even genuine and passionate bonds can be severed in an instant. In three stories, characters experience radical changes of heart as apparently random as a change of weather: “In the greasy glass of the tall kitchen window Michelle saw the three of them—herself, Max, Ellton; woman, man, child—reflected against a dark mass of approaching clouds. . . . Just that quick, she quit loving her boyfriend.” And attraction seems no less random: “She wasn’t as pretty as his wife. She wasn’t as bright. . . . It was what he recognized as love, secret love, flame-red and invisible, love for no good reason.” Sometimes, on the other hand, characters love for reasons that are all too reasonable, like the conscientiously liberal white family in “We and They” that adopts a prickly, unhappy biracial girl: “It was hard to like her. Our family, from the beginning, made a pact to love her, which was easier. Loving someone was a gesture like jumping into a black hole, and its terms precluded all sorts of requirements that were essential in other relationships, such as pleasure or reciprocity.”

I don’t mean to suggest that the lives of all Nelson’s characters are irredeemably southbound. David, the lying protagonist of “Or Else,” begins to rethink his attachment to his proxy family; in “Falsetto,” Michelle, who falls out of love with her oversolicitous (and painfully stupid) boyfriend, seems about to undertake the care of her much-younger brother after their mother dies in a car crash. Often it’s the arrival of a baby, even under inauspicious circumstances, that changes a life for the better—however tentatively. In “Nothing Right,” the lost soul Niffer will have nothing to do with her newborn, but Leo, the way-too-young father, finds purpose in his role as provider, if only with a dishwashing job at Red Lobster: “His driver’s license was suspended after he’d declined to pull over when an officer clocked him doing forty-five in a school zone—but when Hannah dropped him off at the restaurant every afternoon, he never failed to lean through the back window and kiss his son on the forehead.” The most hopeful case is Kay-Kay, the teenage girl in “Kansas”: After her niece is born, she turns on a dime from a “hellion” with a self-inflicted marijuana-leaf scar to a girl who embroiders pillowcases for her grandmother with “bluebells and daisies and sheep and a shepherdess.” The family agrees that the niece, Cherry Sue—named after the father’s first Z car—saved Kay-Kay “by loving [her] as passionately as she did, by assigning Kay-Kay particular status as queen of her heart.” What’s Kay-Kay’s long-term prognosis? Maybe nothing better than settling into midwestern mediocrity—“if she wasn’t careful . . . she would run to fat, like Henry’s other daughters”—and raising troubled children of her own. But maybe nothing worse.

Although Nothing Right includes only one weak piece—the talky, thinly imagined “DWI,” written partly in an ill-advised future tense—you may not want to look too closely at some of the actual writing. In reporting dialogue, Nelson has her characters “bray,” “announce,” “speculate,” “explain,” “acknowledge,” “agree,” “assure,” “go on,” “allow,” “add,” “declare,” and “wail”—and that’s just in the first story. In another, we find an “expectant pause . . . dangling”; in another, someone’s adolescence “descended upon the household like a lit match in a powder keg”; in another, a cancer “smoldered deep inside her”; in another, someone’s fiancée “had scarred him deeply”; in another, someone’s love turns off “like a faucet.” You’d think such airport-fiction clichés would make this collection unreadable, but (unless you’ve taught too many writing workshops) you’re more apt to be worried about Nelson’s people than her prose, and about how she’s ever going to reach a resolution—if only an aesthetic one — of each mess she gets them into.

A kid like the one in the title story probably wouldn’t cotton to Nelson’s sort of storytelling any more than he does to the “fairy-tale bullshit” involving “witches, kings, elfs” he so disdains—  except in his video games. Why make a big deal about the crappy lives of dismally ordinary families like his? Not even the most intelligent and sophisticated of these people can discern—let alone determine—the archetypal shapes of their own stories, beyond a fleeting sense that Macbeth, or Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy, might be a little like someone they know. Nelson herself, though, is in full control: From her come-hither beginnings to her craftily oblique endings—again, I particularly recommend “Kansas”—she molds her characters’ confusion and frustration into harmonious and satisfying works of art. Isn’t this realism magic enough for regular folks?

David Gates is the author, most recently, of the story collection The Wonders of the Invisible World (Knopf, 1999).

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