Eight am, Las Cruces, New Mexico. Antonya Nelson has dropped her son off at school. Her daughter, 11, doesn't start school until 8:30. Half an hour to kill. Not enough time to do anything substantial, too much time to do nothing, at least with an 11-year-old.
Sometimes they hit the grocery store, but that's a hectic thing to pull off in a window of time this small. And so Nelson and her daughter sit together in the car, the ungainly block of time as tangible between them as the stick shift. Obvious solution: homework.
It's the mother, a professor at New Mexico State, who takes out her homework, the daughter who watches. Strike that: listens. Later that day, Nelson is teaching John Cheever's magnificent "Goodbye My Brother" (the opening story in
The Stories of John Cheever). To prepare for class, she reads the story aloud to her daughter.
This is a girl whose mother is a terrific writer and whose father, Robert Boswell, is a terrific writer, too. She does not, however, want to grow up to be a writer. She wants to grow up to be an explorer.
In other cars outside the school, parents check homework, and children fly out of cars and hit the playground; parents and children exchange their day's agendas. In this car, an 11-year-old daughter listens, enthralled. A 37-year-old mother listens, too, awed anew.
Nelson's most recent novel,
Nobody's Girl, is a deceptively simple book about a few months in the life of a 30-year-old ex-Chicagoan named Birdy Stone, who has moved to a tiny, poor town in New Mexico, where she teaches high school English and lives in a trailer and has one friend and looks upon her life like a bemused observer, as if it's all a caper, a temporary thing lacking consequences. In other words, the way, in late-'90s America, most 30-year-old Americans see their lives.
Equally au courant is the book's funniest (and ultimately darkest) stripe, a warm satire of America's current orgy of solipsism: the memoir craze. The widowed mother of one of Birdy's students hires Birdy to help edit her memoir -- a cliché-ridden ("clichés spoke the truth; that's why people had been repeating them for all these years"), bromide-spewing, sentimental, New-Agey, malaprop-genius ("reeked haddock" for "wreaked havoc") mess.
Nobody's Girl, like all of Nelson's best work, is supremely well crafted, without a show-offy clause or phrase, the sort of book you could recommend with equal fervor to your most sophisticated-reader friend and your least. Perhaps best known as an award-winning writer of short fiction (including several appearances in Best American Short Stories), Nelson shows in her novels that she is a writer equally at home telling longer stories.
"Story writing fed my temperament," she says. When she started writing, "I needed immediate gratification. I could tell more quickly whether what I'd written was a success or not. Stories also sort of suited my life. It's hard to focus on any one thing when you have two little kids running around."
"I came to the novel quite honestly," she says. She didn't set out to write one, but rather let the form fit the story she needed to tell. Her first longer work was the title novella in
Family Terrorists, then the love-triangle story that became Talking in Bed. "Finally," she says of that novel, "I had a story that wouldn't fit the format. Something that couldn't even be a long short story."
Nobody's Girl is quietly innovative, a novel told in third person from a single character's point of view. "You'd think that'd be the most common way to tell a story," she says. "But when you look around, it's about the least." She laughs. "It's something writers would think about, but most people don't think about craft or don't care."
Even prospective writers. She tells me a story of a student of hers, who came to Nelson's office to talk about the story he wanted to write. It was going to cover the last 50 years of the main character's life. It was going to be told from several points of view. It was going to be a long story.
"How long?" Nelson asked him.
"Really long," he said. "Eight, maybe even ten pages."
Nelson is a resolutely kind person. She picked up the anthology she'd assigned for that class. How many stories in there covered a whole character's life?
"None, that's right. And how many were from multiple points of view?"
"Like, maybe two or three?"
"And how many were under 20 pages?"
The kid's eyes got wide. Eureka. He grinned. Then the grin fell. He realized how exponentially harder writing was than he'd thought when he entered this room.
"I love teaching," Nelson says.
From beginning to end in Cheever's long, august career, he was with a total of two publishers (Harper Brothers, then Knopf). John Updike has had only one. Line up the last couple of decades of Joyce Carol Oates's books on the couple of shelves it'd take to do that, and what do you notice first? All those cute script D's (Dutton's logo) on the spines.
"Those days are done," Nelson says. "Publishers merge and get bought out; editors don't stay at houses very long," she says. "Why would writers think they'd stay in one place?"
Five books into what looks like the front edge of a long and august career, Nelson has had five different editors. Four different hardback publishers. A stint where a couple of the books were out of print. Now, happily, Nelson's entire body of work has just been reprinted by Scribner in handsome, uniform editions.
Nelson is thrilled by this, but pressed for details about how this shot of redemption came about, she is characteristically self-deprecating. She doesn't remember. She's not sure whose idea it was. She's "way down here in New Mexico," she stresses, away from the depressing inside-dope vagaries of the publishing world, concerned much more with the quality of her writing than the marketing of it.
Another 8am. Another dead half-hour in the school parking lot, brought to life by a mother and a daughter and a book. This time, though, at her daughter's request, it's one of Nelson's own stories she's reading: "The Control Group," from
In the Land of Men, a wow of a story about a boy with a crush on his teacher, the kind of too-ordinary story too many apprentice writers write, except that in Nelson's hands there is (as so often) a traumatic back story: The boy's mother killed her father (the boy's grandfather) with a claw hammer, a locally notorious case, and now the boy is in a foster home and really hasn't a clue about what love is. All of which happens before the story starts. In the story, he takes the teacher to lunch.
Nelson's daughter listens, and Nelson keeps thinking she'll be bored or be faking interest just to be nice to mom. With 11-year-olds, you never know. When Nelson finishes, her daughter nods and says, "Wow" -- my sentiments exactly.
Nelson shrugs and says thanks and hugs her daughter and says have a good day in school.
Nobody's Girl, Antonya
Nelson, whose previous books include three story
collections and the novel Talking in Bed, brings
us Birdy, a displaced 30-year-old high school
English teacher who is nowhere near as chirpy
and cheerful as her name. In fact, Birdy is utterly
depressed. She's been living for a year and a half
in a trailer in the small town of Pinetop, N.M.,
having come from Chicago with big ideas about
engaging idle young minds. By day, she's a
renegade teacher whose students ask questions
like, "Why are all these stories and poems so
depressing?" By night, she's a stoner film buff
who hangs out with a gay colleague, Jesus, a
Pinetop native living with his mother and his
aunt. Things change when Mrs. Anthony, the
mother of one of her students -- hunky, dopey
Mark, whose body is more mature than his mind
-- hires Birdy to help her write the story of the
mysterious, long-ago deaths of her husband and
daughter. In one fell swoop, Birdy becomes a
youthful Angela Lansbury -- interrogating the
locals about suicide and murder -- and a déclassé
Mrs. Robinson, straddling Mark on the trailer's
What lies at the edges of this novel is haunting.
The dead tempt Birdy: "People didn't want to
float alone in their boats ... Perhaps the dead had
that same urge for fellowship. Perhaps that
explained ... their desire for her company. Her
desire for their desire." Nelson, a Southwesterner
herself, eloquently details the vast indifference of
nature there: Birdy glides through her life
between the mountains that loom eternally over
Pinetop. And through Mrs. Anthony's clumsy
efforts to Harlequin Romanticize her lost family,
she makes an important point about the nature of
storytelling: It creates meaning where there was
Unfortunately, the pacing and plausibility of the
Anthonys' mystery falls apart. This wouldn't be a
disaster except Birdy's emotional life doesn't add
up, either. Birdy's family serves only as ghostly
roots for her current troubles -- her mother died a
year ago, she has iffy relationships with her father
and her sister. A smattering of ex-boyfriends have
trailed dirt through her past. Birdy's obsession
with Mrs. Anthony's family drama, while it
relates in obvious ways to her own, is also fuzzy.
But the real problem is not knowing whether you
are supposed to identify with Birdy or not. When
she unleashes her sadness and disdain on Mark
(correcting his English when he's talking about his
dead sister) or Mrs. Anthony's bad prose (reading
Birdy's snide critiques is as much fun as being a
fly on the wall in a teachers' lounge filled with
burned-out Comp. 101 instructors), it's hard to
stay on her side. And sometimes Birdy is just
mean, harshing on the "enormous nose and bad
acne" of a drippy colleague. While there is a
grittiness here -- especially believable in a
fellow-outcast connection Birdy makes with a
pregnant teenager -- the novel has the aimless feel
of depression: vague and bitter. --
At 29, Birdy Stone is a restless spirit. Unmoored by her mother's death, her father's remarriage and her sister's estrangement, she has abruptly run out on her former fiance. Now she lives in a trailer in tiny Pinetop, N.M., where she teaches English literature to actively uninterested high-school seniors and hangs out, smokes dope and shoplifts with her gay colleague and pal, Jess Morales. Birdy seems determined to avoid the responsibilities of adulthood; she lives vicariously through the characters in novels, whose lives have a coherence lacking in her own aimless existence. Her wisecracking personality fails to disguise the sadness that keeps her an outsider even to her own needs. When eccentric widow Isadora Anthony asks for Birdy's help in writing a spiritually uplifting memoir about the strange deaths of her daughter and her husband, Birdy agrees, mainly because she is sexually attracted to Isadora's son Mark, one of her students. Their torrid affair and Birdy's determination to discover the truth about the two deaths, which both occurred at ancient Anasazi ruins in the cliffs above the town, constitute the action in this perceptive and beguiling novel, which might fall into the dreaded category of midlist book were it not for Nelson's considerable narrative skills. The easy rhythms of her prose, her eye for telling detail and evocative description, the zesty candor of her humor and her rueful but compassionate assessment of the ironies of the human condition make her second novel (after
Talking in Bed) a delight to read.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The folks of Pinetop, New Mexico, would like their town to become a trendy tourist trap, but, alas, it is only a small, sleepy Southwestern place where everyone knows one another's business. Birdy Stone, a misplaced Chicagoan and high school English teacher, is just passing through, or at least that is what she says. Birdy is a thirtysomething slacker who conveniently finds a kindred spirit in her fellow teacher, Jesus Morales. Life for Birdy consists of watching movies and drinking with Jesus, until Mrs. Anthony, a local woman, asks Birdy to edit her life story. Birdy then becomes involved in the curious tale of the Anthony family. In 1984, daughter Teresa fell over a cliff to her death on the Fourth of July. Two weeks later, Teresa's father was killed in a car accident. Suspecting foul play, Birdy begins to ask questions. In addition to her investigation into the double death, she also becomes involved with Mark, Mrs. Anthony's son and Birdy's student. The past, present, and future intermingle in this story of love, friendship, family, and death. A clearly written novel with characters who are honest and believable.Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., Ohio
Rewarding....[Nelson] wraps her tart, surprising sentences around a slew of trends and shibboleths....The effect is like watching someone take an old rug and beat the hell out of it. When the dust settles, the air seems clearer. --
The New York Times Book Review