Ron Hansen, best known for his historical novels and tours de force of obsession, including “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “Mariette in Ecstasy” and “Hitler’s Niece,” has collected 19 stories in “She Loves Me Not,” a book graced with an enticing title and a retro black-and-white cover photograph of a young couple necking — both of which are misleading. The selections, which include seven stories from his 1989 book, “Nebraska,” show off Hansen’s range, but readers should be warned that although “The Last Picture Show” sensibility evoked by the jacket isn’t entirely inaccurate, there are no steamy relationship dramas to be found between these covers.
Several stories, in fact, read more like prose poems or nonfiction than short fiction. “Wickedness” offers a haunting succession of snapshots of children, schoolteachers and farmers who lost lives and limbs in howling blizzards in 19th-century rural Nebraska. The story “Nebraska” is an evocative elegy to the vanishing world of small Western towns, where “Main Street is just a block away.” The lack of plot is made up for by the reverberant, Lake Wobegon-style comfort wafting from descriptions of “smelling air as crisp as Oxydol, looking up at stars the Pawnee Indians looked at, hearing the low harmonica of big rigs on the highway.”
But a thrum of violence louder than that lovely “harmonica of big rigs” pounds through these stories. In the title story, an exotic dancer charms a lovestruck ex-con into helping kill her indomitable thug of a husband. It is an operation that goes wildly awry, devolving into grisly ineptitude played for slapstick, recalling the lighter-hearted tone of Hansen’s 2003 screwball comedy, “Isn’t It Romantic?”
“Wilderness,” a tale of married professors who drift apart and reconnect, is part dream, part fairy tale. Set in the Adirondacks and filled with wolfhounds and white calico cats, it evokes both Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood. At one point the wife, chopped into little pieces, is miraculously extracted whole from an old man’s stomach, which is then stuffed “with poetry before they sewed him up and they dropped him over the side of the rowboat into the accepting green lake.”
Darker still is “True Romance,” set on a farm worked by two close couples, where an ominous combination of mysteriously eviscerated cattle and a young mother in despair over her husband’s “put-down way” and “snickering” add up to a sinister but not entirely clear mix.
Hansen brings a deeply humanist sympathy to a variety of characters, including a golf-driven, disgraced retired lawyer, whose dull diary raises just enough red flags in its subtle subtext to keep us reading, and a salesman who decides, after seeing the effects of stress on his more ambitious friends, that Willy Loman’s life is good enough for him.
“The Sparrow” movingly depicts a boy grappling with the “loneliness of grief” after his mother’s accidental death. When the young priest from whom he seeks comfort speaks of Hume, suffering, guilt and the theology of evil, Aidan has to remind him, “I’m just twelve.” It’s only later, through an incident in which a wayward sparrow is freed by his father’s wise and steady instincts, that Aidan gratefully learns to accept “the silence he had been hearing but had not understood.”
A more sympathetic priest narrates the wonderful story “My Communist,” which was first published in Harper’s in 2001 and shows off Hansen’s terrific ear. In “much-in-pieces English,” Stefan Nowak, ordained for the diocese of Krakow by Karol Wojtyla shortly before he became Pope John Paul II, complains of being sent to California as a missionary after his name turned up on a party enemy list because of his support of Solidarity — “A big surprise, belief me!” Unhappy to be silenced and sidelined, he discovers in “a gigantic proportion supermarket” that he is being followed. When he realizes that the spy is Polish, fear is supplanted by pleasure that “whenever he is watching me he is thinking of me in the same language that I am thinking of him.” This lovely story celebrates a human connection that overrides political or religious differences.
“A Hazard of New Fortunes” also entails an unexpected connection. When a cynical 36-year-old sees his parents’ neighbor, a nurse with whom his mother had hoped to set him up, rush to try to save an injured driver, he’s propelled to seek a kind of resuscitation for himself. In a sudden turnaround that’s not entirely convincing, he opens up to her, complaining of “yuppie impotence. Call it window shopping. But I’m outside, looking in.” And then he adds, quoting Faulkner, “And it all tastes the same.”
You may not like them all, but Hansen’s majestic, melancholic, windswept, sobering stories all taste different.
McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR and The Washington Post, among other publications.
She loves me not
New and Selected Stories
By Ron Hansen
Scribner. 238 pp. $25