None of the lead characters in Nelson’s collection have been dealt aces, but they play the lousy hands fate has dealt them with such dogged ingenuity that no one could call them losers.
Nelson (Female Trouble, 2002, etc.) has a quick, deadpan style and characters who are stuck in the middle of America as if marooned on a desert island. In “Some Fun,” a teenaged girl copes with her shrewd and charming—but also difficult and alcoholic—mother. In “Strike Anywhere,” an eight-year-old boy with more fortitude than his weepy mom sits outside a bar waiting for his abusive dad to finish drinking inside. And in “Eminent Domain,” a middle-aged actor falls hard for a wild young debutante living on the streets, “her flame of a head” with its wild corona of dyed purple hair “swaying on the thin stick of her body.” Ruefully, he later realizes he never knew what mattered to her, and was completely peripheral to her struggle to survive. Although the characters go through a lot, for the most part they become not insightful but candidly unrepentant, like the drunk in “Rear View” who observes, “Beer has food value. . . . But food, you know, does not have beer value.” Evan, the hero of “Flesh Tone,” who is persistently haunted by the ghost of his beloved, glamorous dead mother, makes a mean, funny list of all the clunky things his new stepmother, a psychologist, does. She eats health food, keeps rabbits, wears Birkenstocks and leaves him volumes to help deal with what she assumes is his gay identity. While they invariably make staggering mistakes—and usually know they are mistakes at the time—they are always closer to the truth than the forces of conventionality poised to help or intercede.
More entertaining than profound, these stories convey a delight in human variousness and an aloof sense of independence—largely because they are about people who have absolutely no one to rely on.