THE BLOG
11/11/2014 06:22 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

The Chekhov of the Red States

Antonya Nelson is her name. If you haven't heard of her yet, that may be because she's still something of a writer's writer with book jackets full of arias of praise from the likes of Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, and Raymond Carver. There is praise at the same pitch from most of the major reviewing publications. Booklist went over the top with: "Each of Nelson's magnetizing stories generates atomic vibrancy and achieves the psychic mass of a novel."

Nelson is the author of four novels and her seventh short story collection came out earlier this year. She's also a professor, of course, and has a long list of awards. She is due for a selected stories and it will be prime for a Pulitzer. While there may be others on her level technically, there is no one on her level doing her journeyman's work in the red states.

I just completed the Antonya Nelson Red State Tour by reading all seven short story collections. Mostly, she writes the latest variant of 19th century naturalism but with the old domestic themes often tied into plots that are complex, original, even startling. The red state tour, however, is only one strand of Antonya Nelson's art. She is adept in genre; for instance, suspense. In the title story of her second collection, In the Land of Men (1992), a young waitress has just gotten off work and is being driven around Chicago on a wintry night while her three younger brothers explain that they have her rapist tied up in the car trunk. That story was a hit when read on NPR's Selected Shorts program.

However, the red state strand is uniquely Nelson's. Her stories are always very place-specific, and most of their settings could hardly be more landlocked: Montana, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and most often, Nelson's native, dead-center, reddest-of-the-red-states Kansas. (There are also some set in Chicago but with nothing of the sense of place found in the red state settings.) There is hardly an ocean in sight in all seven collections, and the exceptions are telling.

In her third collection, Family Terrorists (1996), in a story with a Chicagoan visiting Santa Barbara, there is rumination on the meaning of California plus the dark revelation of an affair between a young man in his mid-20s and his ex-stepmother. In another story in the same collection, a 12-year-old boy ponders black and white polaroids, that originated in San Francisco, of adults in sex acts. In Some Fun (2006), after the 9/11 attacks, a family flees a "frenetic Los Angeles, beneath high-tension wires and endless airplanes and ozone alerts" for the "high ground" and snowy purity of Colorado. These stories featuring the Sodom of the Coast only bolster her red state cred.

Nelson may be bringing the red state strand to the fore in her art. The ending novella, "Three Wishes," of the latest collection, Funny Once (2014), is her most direct treatment yet of the red state predicament. It takes place in Nelson's hometown of Wichita and is about the middle-aged Panik siblings, two sisters and a brother in the middle. The story begins with the Paniks taking their senile father to a home, duct-taped into his recliner chair which sits on the bed of son Hugh's pick up.

Hugh is a smart, likable schlub who wears no other pants but khakis, and who is an alcoholic using university night classes to forestall day's end drinking. He has lived at home until middle age, through the death of his mother and now the commitment of his father. Hugh has also lived in the same house all his life, which would crumble except for his makeshift patching.

Old houses are a recurring symbol in Nelson. In a story in her first collection, The Expendables (1990), a mistress complains about her lover not leaving his wife: "He doesn't love her; he loves that house." In Nothing Right (2010), an adulteress literally loves, more than her lover, his grandmother's house in which they have their trysts.

The title story of Nothing Right is about the eldest Panik sister, Hannah. Nelson writes of her:

Having grown up in Kansas, she should have been accustomed to... the superiority her neighbors felt toward someone like her, with her foreign vehicle and secular Sundays... her neighbors would change her in ways she wouldn't want to change herself... send her to pantyhose and pumps, hair spray, Episcopal fellowship, potluck dinners, blood drives.


In "Three Wishes," Nelson writes of a Ukrainian refugee: "Ivan had been fleeing Chernobyl. He'd arrived at last in Kansas, salvation, sanctuary; he'd never understood why its natives were always scheming to leave the place." Most of the characters in the novella left Kansas at one time, only to return and stay. They are monuments to inertia.

Ivan has a son by the youngest Panik sister, Holly, who is fragile with "hair-trigger tear ducts." Their nine-year-old Nigel has an unsettling calm and maturity. In an interview in NewYorker.com, Nelson mentioned "a recurrent character in my fiction, a gentle boy, whose sweet nature will no doubt be his undoing... It's very hard around here to be a sweet and gentle boy." Nigel is the latest of those boys.

During the course of "Three Wishes," Hannah decides to end a boring 20-year marriage, Nigel meets his father, and Hugh has a love affair. At the end, we get the saving remark from the lover who tells Hugh, "My sister is... a Republican, I don't think you'd like her at all."

All Nelson's red state short stories crescendo toward this one, thematically as well as chronologically. "Three Wishes" is just-right in every detail and as a whole and shows absolute sureness of touch. Antonya Nelson is 53-years-old now and an accomplished master at the top of her game. If the Paniks are any indication of what's to come, expect more stories of, at least, atomic vibrancy.