Nothing right is a collection of short stories

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By Pat Wellington

It’s an overstatement to say that none of Antonya Nelson’s quirky characters have anything going right for them – but something is clearly wrong with them all. In “Or Else,” for instance, one of the short stories in this collection, the narrator’s favorite bar pick-up line is “My family owns a house in Telluride.” The problem is that the house does not belong to David but to old, out-of-touch friends and that it’s more of a shack than a house. This doesn’t stop him from breaking into it periodically with a new love interest sometime before June 1 when he remembers the owners start their summer vacation. But then he miscalculates and the fun begins.

Why David Chalmers tells this lie and others is as much puzzlement to himself as to the lady who finally discovers his ruse: “He was a liar by nature, and now by long habit. He lied when it wasn’t necessary, when it wasn’t even advantageous. He lied to amuse himself. To excuse himself, to camouflage himself.”

Perhaps the funniest, yet saddest, story in the collection is “Shauntrelle.’ In it, Constance, rejected by both husband and lover, answers an ad for a roommate. When they meet, Fanny Mann is swathed in bandages from multiple cosmetic surgeries to restart her life. As the bandages are peeled off in the days ahead so is her personality, which is warm and engaging.

When her best friend dies in a nearby hospital where Fran has been visiting her in the various stages of her new self, she is grief-stricken because Lucille did not get to see the final product.

The apartment Constance and Fran live in is inhabited by ghosts of former tenants and their drifting identities. Voices late at night outside the door shout, “Shauntrelle, I know you’re in there,” and a voice machine keeps asking for Ray.

In these 11 stories Nelson gives us an unblinkered look at the mess of contemporary American family life and does it with caustic wit, range, and ease. If there’s a leitmotiv here it comes close to something John Cheever once wrote: “How lonely and unnatural man is and how deep and well-concealed are his confusions.”

Americans by and large have always eschewed short stories, preferring instead meaty novels that draw them into more complex situations. But if the latest slew of short story reviews in the New Yorker is any indication of a trend, the genre may be experiencing a comeback.

Pat Wellington is a retired English professor, freelance writer, and faculty member of On Top of the World’s Master the Possibilities who shares her passion for books with others.