So fun it hurts

Antonya Nelson’s Some Fun is not about fun at all, but frailty.

Antonya Nelson’s Some Fun is not about fun at all, but frailty.

Family life is so strange and unpredictable that to write of it realistically one must possess a flair for the grotesque. Flannery O’Connor understood this, and so does Antonya Nelson.

For the past two decades, this Kansas-born short-story writer has been filing dispatches from the battlefront of family relations. Her tales are filled with a frisson of danger and doused in the gasoline of good intentions. Not surprisingly, things usually go up in flames.

Part of the guilty fun of reading them is watching things burn. Until now, that is, for Nelson’s latest volume, Some Fun, arrives with a whiff of arsonist’s regret. From one story to the next, her characters do bad things, realize they should have known better, then come to the bitter understanding that they had to do them anyway.

In “Rear View,” a woman has an affair with a nurse at the hospital where her husband is being treated. “My love for my husband had burst into discrete pieces,” she says, alluding to his mental breakdown. “I could name them—concern, fear, fondness, pity—all separate, like parts of a broken object it was my job to reassemble, an object whose linchpin I seemed to have misplaced.”

Some Fun is filled with people like this, who are trying their best to “toe the line” and keep it together. They don’t often succeed. A good chunk of the book unfolds in bars and during states of inebriation. In “Strike Anywhere,” a man goes to a saloon and asks his son to wait outside while he falls off the wagon. It is not so much the booze that brings him back but his yearning for familiarity.

“He hadn’t been to the White Front since February, but of course nothing had changed. No seasons here. There was payday and happy hour and closing time. There was the first sip, the free round and the flung-back shot that was a flat-out mistake. … No matter how long you abandoned this place, it was waiting when you returned. Welcome to Miller Time.”

There is something almost stereotypical about this scenario: the father inside drinking, his 8-year-old in the truck, unwatched. Time and again, Some Fun dares us to wag a finger at its characters—wake up, don’t you realize you’ve become a cliché!—but then slyly turns us into empathetic witnesses.

Nelson accomplishes this by never judging her cast, and in so doing allows us to feel their perpetual surprise at parenthood. Well into middle-age, they are caught up by the sight of their own children—undone by responsibility. In “Dick,” a mother watches her next door neighbor’s child disappear into the well of adolescent depression and then vanish. Guiltily, she realizes her capacity for sympathy has been cauterized by relief. At least her son is safe from what Andrew Solomon aptly called “the noonday demon.”

Here is the future of American family life, of men and women caught between parenthood and their own extended youth, the aging of their parents a final barrier to being footloose forever. The heroine of “Heart Shaped Rock” has just crawled out from beneath her dead marriage when she must start caring for her dying father. Like characters in so many John Updike stories, sex becomes her battered shield against mortality.

It would be easy for material like this to glamorize dissipation. But Nelson is too wise for that, and her characters won’t stand for any gussying up of the issues. Besides, the western landscape this happens upon doesn’t give any quarter either. Most of these stories occur in Montana and Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, the occasional tunnel vision of her character’s depression clearing for a glimpse of a sky-view vista—just long enough to remind them how small they’re being, how whiney.

And so, like Nelson’s previous collections, Some Fun is not about fun at all, but frailty. Its wisdom rises up right out of Nelson’s beautiful, inevitable sentences. They pause and circle, then come to abrupt conclusions just at the moment the story has begun to fold toward a thumping conclusion. They’re the kind of finales that make you realize that, for the last few pages, you’d held your breath hoping things would turn out all right, knowing in all likelihood they probably wouldn’t.