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IN THE AIR by Robert Nichols


by Robert Nichols

Pub Date: June 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-8018-4195-X
Publisher: Johns Hopkins Univ.

 Thirteen stories, mainly Kafkaesque fables grounded in political outrage, take on an eerie logic of their own when they succeed, as most of them do. Those that don't hover between docudrama and absurdism. Many of Nichols's tales begin in everydayness and veer quickly into strangeness or toss off a first line that posits a strange world and then realistically fills in the dots. ``The Secret Radio Station'' is a fabulist sketch about a station where a ``continuous flow of the unknown language'' is ``interspersed with Jesus rock,'' creating a world--appropriately metafictional--where nothing is as it seems. ``The Barn Raising'' follows a great first line (``We were on our way to register the plan for utopia at the town offices'') with a prosaic but intriguing chronicle of disillusionment. In ``The Changing Beast,'' a story that lampoons paranoia, the Total Planet Food Coop is vandalized, and its members spend a good deal of ink trying to figure out who the culprit is- -The Beast, a half-bear/half-ram capable of human form; disgruntled former member Chuck; or Mr. Belfast, associated with the A&P, a competitor. In ``Meeting Trains,'' a suburban midwestern crossroads where Indian weavers and Haitian cane-cutters arrive becomes a paradigm of pluralism (``Each neighborhood is called by a different name in a different language''). ``Protecting Mendez'' is a fictionalization of the slaying of Chico Mendez, while ``Six Ways of Looking at Farming'' juxtaposes two cultures in order to talk about ``how farms could be lost through debt'' and--a constant theme throughout here--about ``the pleasure of the strangeness being broken by words.'' Imagine Sherwood Anderson on drugs and into political causes. Add a good dose of playfulness and late-20th-century absurdity, and you get Nichols (author of the four-volume utopian novel Daily Lives in Nghsi-Altai).