The old ennui

Review of “Funny Once” by Antonya Nelson.

 

Funny Once: Stories
Antonya Nelson
304 pages, hardcover:
$26
Bloomsbury, 2014.

In Funny Once, her distinctive fifth collection of short stories, Antonya Nelson shares a bleak and lonely view of today’s suburban West, populated by characters who face a sort of “terminal unhappiness.” From Houston to Wichita, Albuquerque to Telluride, we encounter desperately bored people behaving badly. They cheat and are cheated on, they self-medicate, they lie at their AA meetings and then slip around the corner for a beer, they stare through windows contemplating the emptiness of their middle-aged lives with a devastating yet oddly refreshing clarity.

In one story, three adult children finally haul their obstinate father to a nursing home, literally duct-taping the old man to his easy chair and loading him into the back of a pickup. “Could anyone ever predict this was where we’d end up?” they ask themselves. In another story, Phoebe, a dedicated pessimist, is galled by her husband’s idealism, the way he fails to see how “life was so little like a science experiment and so much like a cluttered drawer where you tossed things just to get them out of sight.”

The danger of depicting so many miserable, reckless misanthropes in a single book is that some of the characters start to blend together, seeming interchangeable in their lifestyles and attitudes. Nelson writes with a graceful, powerful ease, though, and while her stories brim with the experience of boredom, they are certainly never boring in themselves.

In “Literally,” one of the book’s most memorable stories, a widower struggles to protect both his own young son and the son of his loyal Latina housekeeper from the harshness of life. Of course, trouble ensues — the boys disappear on a secret mission one afternoon, restraining orders are broken, a precious phone containing all his late wife’s last messages is lost. In the end, safely back home, young Danny sums up not just his own experience, but the theme of Nelson’s entire collection perfectly in one line: “This has been a terrible day. … Even though nothing exactly bad happened.”

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR, ENERGY AND LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) seeks a director to lead a nationwide program focused on the protection of U.S. national parks from energy development...
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • PRICE REDUCED $94,300 - LOT SOUTH OF MONTROSE
    5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • CHARMING HOME/FARM NEAR CLIFF, NM
    3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF NEW MEXICO WILDLIFE FEDERATION
    The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE SPECIALIST I
    HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Customer Service Specialist I General Statement of Duties: Works closely with the customer service manager performing high-volume routine computer database work. Also...
  • ARAVAIPA LAND STEWARD
    The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • VP OF DEVELOPMENT
    seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • DEVELOPMENT ASSISTANT
    High Country News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • FIVE-ACRE VIEW LOT WITH WELL
    5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.