What do you need in the wilderness?” ponders Anna, one of the many conflicted characters in Jean Thompson’s latest collection of stories. Her conclusion is generous, almost romantic, from one so cynical: “A kinder, braver heart.”
Anna is thinking of her ex-lover Ted, who lives in the Ozarks and writes her long, meaningful letters about his new life 10 miles from the nearest paved road. (“Now that it’s fall, I’m starting to see more hawks. They ride the thermals through the canyons, silent, mostly .æ.æ.”)
But the shrewd Thompson is also keenly aware that any place we’re unhappy — and all too often we are — is also a sort of wilderness. Even the most familiar suburban or city landscape might become, under the right circumstances, an outpost for the lost and lonely.
So what do we need to survive hostile surroundings? In the superb 12 stories of “Do Not Deny Me,” Thompson makes a case for making that kinder, braver heart beat. She is not sentimental but practical: Nobody will save us from sorrow, so we must try to save ourselves.
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Author of two excellent collections (“Throw Like a Girl” and the National Book Award finalist “Who Do You Love”) and the novels “City Boy” and “Wide Blue Yonder,” Thompson is an astute observer of the pitfalls of contemporary life, how it isolates and challenges, how it brings out one’s worst and best. Her clear-eyed, thought-provoking stories highlight rare, precious moments of grace even as she wisely notes the human tendency toward selfishness, pettiness and general bad behavior.
We can ignore virtue and be as self-centered as the narrator of “Mr. Rat” (so named by an ex-girlfriend) who sleeps just fine after a humiliating sexual encounter with a co-worker and gamely serves up a friend when the boss comes looking for someone to lay off. Or we may flutter helplessly despite good intentions like Beate, the quiltmaker in “Little Brown Bird,” who has retreated from her stagnant marriage to spend her time in the sewing room.
Loneliness drives her to befriend a neighbor girl. Troubled by the child’s off-handed comment about her little sister — “My daddy sleeps in Michelle’s bed” — Beate struggles with indecision on how to respond and recognizes the limitations of her refuge. “What a lie a pretty picture in thread was when your own life was just as sad, as torn, as misshapen as anyone else’s .æ.æ. . “
Thompson understands why we need these emotional safe havens, though. Life is disappointing, and help is not always on the way. In her room, Beate “could close the door on the infernal noise and destruction her husband was intent on making, and if that was what the two of them had come to .æ.æ. well, they were used to each other, they didn’t fuss or argue, they were able to talk about normal things.”
Patience is required, and even when salvation arrives, it’s often in a surprising form. In “The Woman at the Well,” a prison inmate goes dully through the motions of attending Bible study but suddenly, shockingly, experiences unexpected joy. In “Treehouse,” a man finds peace — and pulls away from his wife — through a building project. Julia, the young protagonist in the title story, at first believes a psychic is the only way to free herself from grief but finally learns that what has been haunting her “was me all along.”
Thompson’s stories are not without humor, though she prefers a dark variety. In “Escape,” an elderly stroke victim bent on a few blessed moments away from his oppressive wife gets delicious revenge on the “old trout.” The disgruntled, passed-over, has-been university professor in “Soldiers of Spiritos,” who can’t even get Building Maintenance to restore the heat in his office, consoles himself by writing a series of science-fiction fantasies in which he recasts “a number of his departmental colleagues as grotesque and menacing aliens, androids, and intergalactic creeps.”
The most insightful stories, though, are a matched set. In “Wilderness,” twice-divorced Anna leaves Chicago to spend Thanksgiving in the Michigan suburbs with her college friend Lynn, married with two teenage sons.
Anna has been less lucky in relationships: “The wreckages of two marriages and more lovers than had strictly been necessary trailed behind her like a busted parachute.” Anna immediately begins sniping at Lynn’s maternal image (“You are the very model of a modern Michigan matron”). Lynn has become a stranger: “There was a kind of a protective coloration people developed to fit their surroundings, so that in the suburbs one saw whole herds of fleece garments, turtlenecks, sporty shoes. Lynn had cut her hair short and permed it, some hairdresser’s version of a casual, fun look. Now it had flattened, like the pelt of an animal.”
But Anna isn’t seeing the whole story, though she finally gets a glimpse of it. In “Her Untold Story,” we see Lynn’s point of view, as Thompson develops her as fully rounded, interesting, flawed. She can behave self-indulgently, and she makes a couple of missteps, but when she finally settles on a path to contentment, we’re as pleased as if we had accomplished that feat ourselves. Her heart is definitely kinder and braver, open and willing to take on the world.