Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Only Beautiful and Other Stories"

Kerry Langan, Only Beautiful & Other Stories. Decatur, GA: Wising Up Press, 2009. 214 pp. $20. Available from the publisher or from Amazon.com, or by special order from your favorite independent bookselller.

In the first two stories in Kerry Langan's beautiful new collection of short stories, there are moments of silence. The silence in the first story, "Makeover," comes in the wake of a trauma: "The furnace shuts off and the house is gradually quiet, so silent I hear the spray of rain hitting the window." In the second story, "Lead Us Not," the silence marks an absence: "The room was so quiet I could hear the buzzing of the fluorescent lights overhead and the hiss from the radiators." One of Langan's gifts as a writer is her ability to listen intently, and to hear what is unspoken in every situation. She also has a great writer's eye for the significant detail, bringing entire life histories alive in a single moment of illumination. She achieves what the best writers of short fiction can achieve, combining an economy of narration with a depth of insight and sympathy that allows us to feel, in a few short pages, that we know her characters and live intimately among them.

"Makeover" is narrated by a fifteen-year old girl, Barb, who babysits for the children of a woman, Janet, whose marriage has recently broken up. Barb innocently fantasizes about being in Janet's place—a grown-up woman with a lovely house and a closet full of beautiful clothes—but ends up trespassing upon fantasies that are not nearly so innocent. Langan allows us to see the world through Barb's eyes—but unlike Barb, we can at the same time see through our adult eyes the more troubling aspects of Janet's life and relationships. It's a perfect opening story for the collection, because it explores the attractions and the dangers of entering into the lives of others—one of the major themes of Langan's fiction.

In the novella, "Only Beautiful," Langan tells the story of beautiful Mary Connolly in the voices of at least a dozen different characters. The novella is like a diamond of many facets, prismatic, as the characters illuminate not only Mary's life, but their own, with unexpected lights and colors. As in many of Langan's stories, the characters, bound up in their own anxieties and preoccupations, manage to misinterpret each other, to cause each other unintentional pain, and to muddle through—sometimes to a kind of unexpected grace. Langan's touch is so sure that we never fall out of sympathy with these flawed and fumbling, and ultimately very familiar characters. She knows how much we need each other, and how falteringly we fulfill that need.

In one of my favorite stories, "The Marshall Islands," Langan gives us a classic American short story with the Aristotelian unities of a suburban backyard barbecue, and an Aristotelian moment of recognition in which a father sees the epitome of his own life—his failures and his longings—in the life of his son. The story contains everything: the longing of parents for children, of men for women, of age for youth, of the present for the past. The Marshall Islands—where the United States conducted nuclear tests on the Bikini Atoll after World War II—become a symbol of poisoned relationships and of a longing for a fresh start. It's smart and potent storytelling.

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