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Book Check: Funny Once, by Antonya Nelson

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Title: Funny Once

Tell Me About the Author: Antonya Nelson, who holds the Cullen Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston, is one of the nation's undisputed masters of the short story. Prior to Funny Once, she's published ten books of fiction, six of which are story collections. Just how powerful are her stories? When Nelson's 2006 collection Some Fun was released, her publisher decided to use the book cover to enumerate her lengthy list of accolades. She's won the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has been named one of Granta's 50 Best Writers Under 40, and one of The New Yorker's 20 Writers for the 21st Century. Since then her 2009 collection Nothing Right and her 2010 novel Bound were named Notable Books in their respective years by The New York Times.

And this Book is About What? Nelson's stories are provocative in their observation of the casual malice of middle-class life. Her characters are either reeling from the selfish sensibilities of ex-spouses or lifelong frenemies, or their busy wreaking havoc on the people closest to them. In the collection's opening story, "Literally," a widower contrasts life without his wife with that of his housekeeper, Bonita, a woman who is also raising a son and whose absent, abusive husband might as well be dead.

Bonita's husband is not such a loving father to her sensitive son, but she still cannot bring herself to get rid of him. The kinship Richard feels for this long-suffering woman is touching, the two finding friendship across socioeconomic and cultural divides. Before the story can become too sentimental, it ends with a startling possibility: Richard's dead wife may have killed herself. Richard's son and daughter will grow up without a mother, and Richard will never know if he was able to bring his wife happiness. It's a startling realization that a moment of passion, a gamble with one's life, can throw everyone in the vicinity into a perpetual state of bewilderment.

When I first started reading Nelson in college, her urban landscapes had a distinctly Midwestern ethos. Recently, she has seemed more comfortable in placing her stories in Houston, and that's never been more evident as in this collection. The Houston of today is felt in "iff," a story that sees its main character return to Kansas after her father has a car accident. In Kansas she become acquainted with a former boyfriend, and she titters on the verge of a possible dalliance as a counter to her husband's worldly sex life. Her parents, her former boyfriend, the people who orbit her space in Kansas are cut from an altogether different cloth than the cocktail party set of inner city of Houston, including a malicious best friend who sends flowers all the way to Kansas, just one more insult to an injury the protagonist has no idea she's suffering. That's another motif that resurfaces frequently in this collection: when you have friends as duplicitous as this, who needs to worry about enemies?

The final piece is "Three Wishes," a novella that follows the lives of three siblings immediately after they put their elderly father into a nursing home. Hugh is the definition of arrested development, Hannah is on the verge of divorce, and Holly seems to be made of a spineless matter. The three siblings are haunted by the lurking memory of an older brother, Hamish, who died when he was a teenager. Nelson renders each personality with care and attention to detail, each digression one more haphazard decision in a lifetime of haphazard decision. How else to explain Hugh's sudden fling with a married woman? "Three Wishes" is funny, true to life, and like the other stories in Funny One, beautifully sad. Should I Read It? Nelson's stories are always thought-provoking in the accessibility of her characters. They're so bad, they're somehow good. Her stories are not for the faint of heart, or those who do not like to look in mirrors. Even the least discerning of readers will find themselves in the fallacies that populate her pages.

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