Review: In 'Nothing Right,' Antonya Nelson captures the power of ordinary life

Some short stories are clever tricks that substitute surprise for resolution. Others end inevitably, in self-discovery. Antonya Nelson's subtle, absorbing short stories draw characters' lives so convincingly that it's easy to imagine them struggling years after the story leaves them.

She catches ordinary people in the middle of something perfectly ordinary, but central to them: a secret affair, a son in trouble, a crumbling marriage. What makes these stories extraordinary is the persuasive power of the writer.

In the title story, Hannah considers her teenaged son, who's gotten a girl pregnant. "Maybe it would be best if the baby did not survive. It had been created by children, after all, and the other approximate projects — the sugar-cube igloo, the lumpy clay bowl — it was possible that they had not gotten it right; they'd used sticks and buttons, papier mache." Once she sees the baby, however, "she could not wish him gone."

Two of the most interesting stories are about thieves of lives: OBO, about a fawning graduate student who lies her way into her professor's home because she envies his wife, and Or Else, in which a skanky, neglected Tucson boy spends summers in a mountain cabin with a family of laid-back, generous '60s people. He breaks in years later with his girlfriend, pretending that it's his place, only to encounter the family. Nobody in these stories is quite comfortable; most are running from or running toward something more, or different.

"It wasn't just a husband one divorced, but a life," Constance realizes in Shauntrelle. "A credit rating. Certain friends — sadly, some of them small children." Having lost it all for a lover who doesn't want her, she lands in an apartment with a gaudy 60-something woman in the midst of a string of surgical enhancements.

The temptation here is to quote at length, Nelson is that good. Instead, well. Read them.

Novelist Kit Reed's most recent short story collection is "Dogs of Truth."

Nothing Right

By Antonya Nelson

Bloomsbury, 296 pages, $25

Review: In 'Nothing Right,' Antonya Nelson captures the power of ordinary life 04/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 4:30am]

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