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Reckless abandon

Some Fun Stories and a Novella Antonya Nelson Scribner: 256 pp., $22

April 02, 2006|Lisa Teasley | Lisa Teasley is the author of the story collection "Glow in the Dark" and two novels, "Dive" and the forthcoming "Heat Signature."

ANTONYA NELSON'S fifth collection is a moving melange of tough and tender bar stories -- chronicles of reckless, damaged people, their lugubrious affairs and wandering offspring. In these tales, set in Texas, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and California, Nelson's Western characters exemplify a cowboy's self-imposed exile in their respective dry and vast spaces. And yet these are ordinary folks next door suffering quietly -- or not so quietly -- in familial estrangement.

Nelson details her characters' mishandled relationships with Grace Paley-esque sensitivity; she also has some of James Salter's talent and penchant for the elegant sentence. In "Dick," the collection's first story, we meet a family as it is leaving Los Angeles for Colorado. Ann Ponders, its reluctant matriarch, aptly named for her constant inner debates, sits in the car, waiting for the cat to return from an adventure:

"The daily L.A. paradox: toxic beauty. She was grateful for a polluted day on which to move; it capped an argument she had been making for months. For clean air, she told herself, they were leaving the only home her children had ever known."

Dick is the best friend and Los Angeles neighbor of Ann's 12-year-old son, Cole. Once the Ponderses have arrived safely in Colorado, they learn that Dick has gone missing. Ann questions Cole for possible reasons -- so do Dick's parents. Along with experiencing the turmoil caused by her sassy 18-year-old daughter, a fickle cat and her growing alienation from her husband, Ann is at once awed and mystified by her young son, who, as he explains the unhappiness that may have led to Dick's running away, reveals a depth she has never noticed before.

Such depth does not come without its price. In "Strike Anywhere," Ivan spends lonely hours in a truck while his father gets drunk and cruel in a bar. It's not Colorado this time but Portersburg, Mont., where Ivan's family lives next door to the police station and jail. "The snow had melted and the grass had popped up, bright green and bent," Nelson writes, "as if it's been blanketed all winter, waiting." During the father's long sessions of humiliating everyone (himself most of all) at the White Front bar, this 8-year-old boy endures a prison and an unwanted early awakening to life's coldness.

Jilly, in "Heart Shaped Rock," also attempts to escape this coldness with the bottle. She arrives in Missoula, Mont., to see her dying father in the hospital, but because her mother had lived with both her father and her uncle Dan, readers soon realize that Jilly's drunken uncle could be her father. Like her mother, who was also a wild runaway, Jilly spends her life moving from bar to bed and back again. During all this, she has experienced a single bright spot of carnal happiness with her first boyfriend: "She had loved him because her body loved his. It was the most mysterious of loves, she understood now, years into the future. It was the rarest to find, the saddest to miss."

Repeatedly in Nelson's fiction, we encounter characters desperately attempting to hold themselves together even as their lives are falling apart. There's Sissy in "Rear View" who's having an affair with a male nurse while her husband is in a psych ward. The only way to stabilize her life, she thinks, is to have a child. Or there is Paolo, an actor in "Eminent Domain," who amuses himself by taking up with various afflicted souls in Houston's high society. At one of the many fund-raising dinners of his benefactors, he begins an affair with a wealthy, older married woman. No one in her circle really cares. This ease and absence of guilt lead him to a fascination with a runaway junkie he uncovers -- a beautiful, damaged daughter of Houston society.

Nelson's book culminates with the novella "Some Fun," which follows the ordeals of teenager Claire Pratt as she becomes substitute mother to her two younger brothers when Dad moves out and Mom spirals into deeper and deeper alcohol dependency. When Claire could be focusing her attentions on puberty, academics and life in El Paso -- or even having a little fun -- she is instead negotiating the well-being of her family. Whether it's accompanying her mother to the toilet to get sick, cooking breakfast and dinner for the 3- and 6-year-olds, or keeping her father abreast of their household affairs, Claire stays on top of most of it and pays for her good intentions in the process.

The lives we see in "Some Fun" are skillfully, empathetically rendered and possess a quiet beauty. Conversely, the cover of Nelson's book, emblazoned with her awards and accolades, demands attention ("Winner of the O. Henry Prize," "Flannery O'Connor Award winner" and "One of Granta's 50 Best Writers Under 40" among them). Her awards are well deserved, but it's like picking up a CD with a band's Grammys posing as jacket art or a DVD with nothing but Golden Globes and Oscars adorning the cover. Still, if boldface laurels have become what it takes to sell good fiction, then so be it. *

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