The Expendables

The Expendables

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by Antonya Nelson

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Winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award, Antonya Nelson's debut collection of stories displays the off-beat perceptions, the humor, and the sensibility that have won the author not only critical acclaim but a host of devoted readers.
Most of the stories in The Expendables are about marriage — marriage in process, about to be, about not to be anymore,

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Winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award, Antonya Nelson's debut collection of stories displays the off-beat perceptions, the humor, and the sensibility that have won the author not only critical acclaim but a host of devoted readers.
Most of the stories in The Expendables are about marriage — marriage in process, about to be, about not to be anymore, possibly transgressed, and decidedly not transgressed. In the title story, a teenage boy participates in the spectacle of his sister's second marriage. In "Dog Problems," a husband muses about his wife's attachment to her dog, a bond that predates their marriage and will — he fears — outlast it. There is the woman in "Affair Life," happily encircled by her husband and child, who still must choose between her marriage and what is not quite yet an infidelity. Ranging in setting from Atlanta to Chicago and Kansas City, from the arid Southwest to the course of a river running through Colorado canyon walls, the stories in The Expendables show our relationship with destiny, whether resisted, invented, obeyed, or forced.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
San Francisco Chronicle Nelson pries at the tight and awkward knots of relationships, getting into places where tenderness and need are buried. Her eye is unflinching and her narrative touch subtle and precise.

Los Angeles Times A fine collection...compassionate and excruciatingly realistic.

Melissa Pritchard Chicago Tribune With edgy wit and sweet empathy, Nelson dissects conflict between contemporary men and women.

Raymond Carver We see what it is that the best young writers have to offer — a kind of pizzazz, the love of undercurrent, of voyeuristic intensity, a bewildered fascination with ritual as it has been undermined in our time.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Nelson Algren Award and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, Nelson makes a vivid and exciting debut with this short-story collection. In the dozen entries here, we meet characters who negotiate intricate pathways through the adversity, loneliness, sadness and ironies of human relations. The bonds of marriage are scrutinized throughout, against settings that range from Atlanta to Chicago to a Colorado canyon. In the title work, the narrator is a teenage boy from a family ``Catholic only in theory and size,'' who parks cars at his sister's wedding to Chris the Sicilian. When the event ends in chaos he finds himself identifying with his father: ``I was him, I was my father and his life was happening to me. I was a man looking out at a neighborhood gone not bad, but askew, with cyclone fences and Gypsies and shootings at weddings.'' Two stories, ``Mud Season'' and ``Looking for Tower Hall,'' concern the same family coping with the death of a daughter. The mother, Lois, looks perpetually for meaning: ``Lois believed in human interest stories in the newspaper the way she believed in dreams. She was susceptible to both, drawn to their messages, which she took almost entirely at face value.'' In writing that is both charming and intelligent, Nelson displays a fresh and distinctive talent. (Jan.)

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Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
First Scribner
Product dimensions:
0.48(w) x 5.50(h) x 8.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One: Listener

"Why did you stop?" her husband asks. His hand had lifted, as it did involuntarily, while she was reading, but as soon as she'd quit it had dropped back into his lap, lifeless. "Julia?" he says, and though his hands are both peacefully draped on his lap, his voice holds the most minor of tremors, perhaps perceptible only by his wife. "Julia, is there something...?"

"It's just that man again."

Averil's hand rises when he hears her voice. It flits to his collar, to his ear, his nose, a pattern his hand has etched into any space Averil inhabits. He is blind, and when he hears his wife's voice, when his hand senses her voice on the air, he must check the other senses rapidly. He is here, they seem to tell him, he fills a shirt, a body; he can enclose himself with his hands.

"Next door?" he says, gently.

"Across the way." Not an alley, just a brief ten-foot space between windows. "I can't get used to apartments," she says, rising to pull the shades. The room shrinks, the light dulls. "But I can't stand his being out there. He just sits on his bed and..."

"And what?" Averil has a smile on his lips, his face and hand following her voice in their own bedroom to the windows, back to the rocker.

"And he listens."

"You read well. You have a lovely voice for reading, and I'm sure he only wants to hear." He crosses his long legs on the bed, fluffs the feather pillows behind him, rubs his temples with his slender fingers. The only part of him he cannot maneuver to his liking is his hair, which triumphs wildly on his head, thick and brown, a few gray strands rising even more mutinously above the rest, coarse and cantankerous. He has the ruffled yet refined look of an eccentric scholar, a chess player in the park, a musician.

"He annoys me," Julia says. She adjusts her magnifying eyeglasses and returns to Jude the Obscure, but it is not the same as before. She is self-conscious. While she reads, she begins wondering what the man heard, if he heard her voice take on the personalities of Jude and Arabella, if he heard them slaughter their pig. Now her voice is lower, her chair closer to Averil, her fingers flipping through on their own to find the end of the chapter.

After Jude, she reads him some short stories. He doesn't like them as well; they end too quickly, he says. He likes to go on and on. He loved Anna Karenina. He never wanted the party to end. But Julia enjoys the short stories and the poems. She can read them twice in one evening if she wants. If they were powerful, she can recast their spell easily. And Averil does have his own books. It isn't as if he must depend completely on her.

The man across the way, however, is still a problem.

She and Averil moved in only a month ago. From Kansas. Julia's new Chicago job, a surprise transfer, paid so much more they couldn't afford not to move. They'd always been strapped for money. For a while, Averil had had to sell cosmetics over the phone. No amount of love for their house in the country could compete with the money she would make. Their move was simple; they hired a van line, had the condominium painted, the floors sanded, the locks changed, before they ever arrived. Julia had only to stand in the hallway and direct the men. "In the study...," she would say, "in the bedroom,...down in storage," and their furniture glided into new places, filling available space. She led Averil through the rooms. His hands, clumsy and out of sync with his body in the new rooms, sought the familiar objects of their lives: the smooth round oak table he'd sanded himself, a cold marble vanity stand, the hairy surface of his recliner where his cat Sophie slept, was now sleeping.

It took him no time at all to adjust to the layout. The noise was different. Sirens still startle him in the night. Helicopters and human voices can make him clutch Julia, whose heart leaps for him. It is only then, blackness surrounding both of them, together in a shared blindness, that she mistrusts their judgment. Moving was not good, she thinks. We have done the wrong thing. In these moments she feels anything could happen, that she has so little control in the world that nothing, no place, is safe.

But Averil relaxes, slips into sleep trustingly. His breath against her throat is sweet, not like an adult's but like a child's, clear. His faith in her can calm her; if he trusts her, she must be trustworthy.

Copyright © 1990 by Antonya Nelson

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Meet the Author

Antonya Nelson teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, and is the award-winning author of three novels and four short story collections. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and The Best American Short Stories. She divides her time among Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico.

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