“Funny Once: Stories” by Antonya Nelson (Bloomsbury, 304 pages, $26)
Nelson’s 11th book and seventh collection of stories maintains her quality of storytelling as she explores the vicissitudes of life in families as they deal with children, aging parents, addictions, adultery and death.
“Funny Once” includes nine stories and a novella, “Three Wishes,” which is set in Wichita, where Nelson was born.
In that novella, a trio of siblings place their widower father in a nursing home, but what haunts them is the death of their older brother – and oldest sibling – who drowned at age 19.
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Hugh, at 39 younger than Hannah and older than Holly, experiences this loss in his mind. “When he closed his eyes, the faces of the dead would appear …, a laundry line of windblown sheers, sepia toned.”
All three siblings frequent a bar and drink almost daily. For Hugh, his brother’s absence is “a kind of black hole into which all confusing emotion got pulled, and which was, coincidentally, a source of explanation for that same confusing emotion.”
As in all these stories, Nelson’s characters here can’t muster enough meaning in their lives to escape the doldrums. Hugh falls for a married woman and experiences some happiness, but it can’t last. Life consists of “If only.”
Many of Nelson’s characters drink as a way to cope with lives that fall short of what they hoped for. As one character says in the title story, “unaltered reality was monotonous, predictable and very slow.”
In that story, a young couple decides to clean up their act and be sober. But then they fall into lying to their friends to cover up something they’d done when drunk. Phoebe decides that “life was so little like a science experiment and so much like a cluttered drawer where you tossed things just to get them out of sight.”
In “The Village,” a woman whose life changed at 16 when she had an accident while driving drunk visits her father years later in a nursing home and learns of his own failings. Later she lies to her husband in order to attend the funeral of a woman who had helped her back when she was in community service. Families are fragile, complex entities, and people often find help outside their family, in the wider village.
Tragedies and relational wounds affect the characters here. In “Literally,” a father and his young son live through a difficult day but recall the day they learned their wife and mother died in a car accident. But the father remains haunted by the suspicion that it was not an accident but suicide.
In “First Husband,” a woman named Lovey takes in her stepdaughter’s young children for a night while she goes out looking for the children’s father. Despite the trouble this causes Lovey, she is glad to connect with the children, particularly Caleb, the oldest, who “had saved her.”
Present throughout the stories is Nelson’s assured narrative voice, which combines humor and easily tossed-off opinions of the characters. In “iff” (I still don’t understand the title) the protagonist notes that “women grow hard over time while men grow soft.” Later, she thinks, “Time teaches this, that you are astonished at what winds up coming out of your mouth.”
In “Chapter Two,” about a woman telling a story in an AA meeting, she observes, “Like many an obese woman, she tended to her hair and makeup fastidiously.” Later she meets a man from AA who “hadn’t had a drink in five years, but it had only been two hours since he’d downed a few Xanax.”
Nelson includes descriptions that reflect a critique of her setting. In “Literally,” a school is in “a neighborhood populated by university professors and medical personnel, equitable two-income two-car two-children homes, nannies and gardeners and housekeepers, the insulated hub of bleeding heart liberalism.”
The stories are set in New Mexico, Colorado, Houston and Wichita. She captures the latter from a local’s point of view: “Everyone complained about Wichita, locals and visitors alike, about the whole state of Kansas, its monotonous landscape they were forced to drive through or fly over, its backwater reputation they felt free to ridicule. Yes, the place lacked a lot, but Hugh had already heard about it a thousand times.”
Stories from writers such as Nelson reflect the times in which we live and move us to reflect on our own lives, on our relationships, our wounds, what we use to get through our days. In her stories we encounter the complex lives of others and perhaps grow in our empathy and understanding.