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BACK BEFORE THE WORLD TURNED NASTY by Pauline Mortensen

BACK BEFORE THE WORLD TURNED NASTY

By Pauline Mortensen

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1989
Publisher: Univ. of Arkansas Press

This first collection of 11 stories won the 1988 Utah Arts Council Publication Prize; many are set in Idaho (place-telling is the book's strength) and concern women nostalgic for better times. Mood pieces and reminiscences, they're short on plot and long on atmosphere. Many stories depend upon a moody instance for success: ""Modern Rustic"" renders the ""new wild west,"" the Idaho panhandle where violence is always a threat, especially to ""stragglers staying on past vacation."" ""Conditions in General,"" vivid but too easily ironic, is about an infertile narrator planting seedlings in Idaho with her mother. Other tales concern family members barely making do: in ""Side Effects,"" the narrator deals with her mother, suffering from bone cancer and hallucinations--the mother requires a series of delicate family rituals to help her through the day; ""House-Painting Deal"" is a daughter's meditation as she goes through her mother's effects and primes the family house for market; and ""The Hunsaker Blood"" is an effective grotesque comedy about another house, one made dangerous by dry rot--the family dismantles it completely after the death of the ineffectual father. As for the others, ""The Window Effect"" is more sketch than story, a typically first-person present-tense description of a place--in this instance, the orthopedic floor of a hospital. It's sensitive and fully rendered, but there isn't much in the way of movement, even internal movement. ""Graffiti on the Rocks"" allows another first-person narrator focused on her mother to summarize the collection's dominant mood: ""What did any of us know back then, back before the rent was due, back before the world turned nasty."" No standouts, then, but a certain kind of low-rent survival in the face of breakdown (physical, structural, psychological, regional) is captured precisely here.