The winner of Helicon’s 1999 Willa Cather Fiction Prize debuts with stories that, albeit earnest, are too effortful and familiar to take flight.
Some come closer to catching moments of real life in their hands than others—“Wind Across the Breaks,” for example, about a first-time mother who, until her baby nears death, doesn’t realize she has no milk—but even there, the psychological crux strains credibility. Similarly, in “Trailer People,” a young woman laments the squalor of a campground but not only doesn’t pull up stakes but also lets her dog off its leash after a ranger tells her not to, with the told-you-so result that it gets killed by a bear. As if her stories were clocks needing superheavy mainsprings, Norris often reduces situations or central figures to one dimension, with results the opposite of the dramatic power that’s wanted—as with the US Navy officer, stationed with his family in Manila, who’s so awful a father (“ ‘You’re a fucking bitch,’ he said in a low, menacing voice”) that his frightened daughter throws up at the dinner table (“American Primitive”). In another Manila-set tale (“Stray Dogs”), an American girl is so unhappy with life in the military compound that she steals a silver spoon of her mother’s, letting the servants take the blame: an ambitious if familiar tale that nevertheless leaves the girl’s character seeming undermotivated. Other artificially heavy villains push stories like “Prisoner of War” (Nazi-esque young men playing war games actually kill—maybe—a man) and “Interior Country” (an Alaska-set and TV-thin sort of feminist retelling of “The Killers”). Among those remaining, “Toy Guns” is psychologically thin, while “Black Ice” (two women stuck overnight in their car) and “Swimmers” (a wife’s addiction to adultery) have certain sturdy and pleasurable merits but yearn for a lighter touch.
Stories wider in range than in power, from a writer who could grow.