Books

Odes to Omaha

Odes to Omaha
by Sven Birkerts |
The new collection of stories by Ron Hansen M.A. ’95, the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Professor in SCU's College of Arts and Sciences, was reviewed by essayist and critic Sven Birkerts in the Nov. 9, 2012 New York Times Book Review. The review follows. Hansen will read from his book at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Nov. 20 at 7 pm. Visit the bookstore website for more information and directions.

Unknowability—how things so often come to pass against every sensible expectation—can be haunting. I imagine, for instance, stopping a young Ron Hansen on a street corner in his native Omaha sometime in the early 1950s and pulling a modified Frank Capra maneuver. “You will grow up to write books about many things,” I’d tell him, “about Jesse James and Adolf Hitler and a nun named Mariette and the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. You will yourself be ordained as a deacon of the Roman Catholic Church. Now run along and play.”

And here we are, some six decades along, with Ron Hansen having become one of our most honored and prolific authors, living proof of how imagination can step free of every literal habitation. But we are also inescapably beholden to our sources, to the places and cultures that have shaped us—a paradox that defines Hansen’s publishing career. He has made a wide sweep, with 12 books to date, mainly novels in which he has deployed a range of styles and approaches, from straight-up documentary realism to an acutely poetic lyricism to various slyly worked “genre” expressions. Now, with She Loves Me Not: New and Selected Stories (Scribner, 2012), we see him bring some of that range of exploration to bear on his origins.

"Brick by felt-and-known brick, he builds us
a place bright with imagining."

Hansen’s first collection, Nebraska, which appeared in 1989, was a work that in its wrought realism, its ways of culling grim beauty from the often harsh history of his native place, achieved a memorable intensity. She Loves Me Not republishes seven of those stories, but to suggest that he’s recycling would miss the larger point. Instead, he has used this early work as the basis for what becomes a very different, exploded, view of a place. In these pages, Nebraska—Omaha in particular—is both rendered and reappropriated, registered and riffed on through a range of tonalities.

The first story, “Wilde in Omaha,” is, as its title suggests, a playful reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s actual visit to that city in March of 1882. Recounted by a bumbling, fame-besotted journalist, the British writer’s short stay among the arts-avid, cornfed Nebraska bourgeoisie becomes a delightful anthology of some of this famed raconteur’s best bits. For Wilde will make no conversational response to any question that isn’t an epigram, as often as not a well-known one. Hansen’s setup lines can be almost groaningly obvious. When a Mr. Rosewater of The Daily Bee asks him, apropos of nothing, “Are you a hunter?” Wilde gets to deliver one of his celebrated bons mots: “Are you asking if I gallop after foxes in the shires? Indeed not. I consider that the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.” Didn’t Monty Python run a similar shtick some years before? They did. But Hansen isn’t pretending otherwise.

“Wilde in Omaha” is followed by a string of stories from the “Nebraska” collection, and what a shift it is to go from that highly arch patter to the cruel horror of the blizzard of 1888—a mere six years, but in terms of the circuit of human experience the very antipodes. “Wickedness” consists of a series of episodic encounters of farm people and townspeople with the completely unexpected—and unprecedented—storm. It’s mainly a catalog of last hours and final moments, but the detailing, the staging, is unsurpassed. Every moment is fully imagined. “A tin water pail rang in a skipping roll to the horse path.” A wife who has gone out to look for her husband is found “standing up in her muskrat coat and black bandanna, her scarf-wrapped hands tightly clenching the top strand of rabbit wire that was keeping her upright, her blue eyes still open but cloudily bottled by a half inch of ice, her jaw unhinged as though she’d died yelling out a name.”

Hansen plots various other points and other versions of place on that same human circuit. “Red Letter Days” purports to be the most quotidian of diaries kept by a stoical retiree who thinks of almost nothing but golf (“Match play with Zack, a one-stroke handicap per hole”) but manages in the interstices to suggest a whole panorama of regrets, fears and losses. (“The problem is me. I just can’t listen fast enough. Everything gets scrambled. . . . Humiliating.”)

“Mechanics,” hitting the daily from another angle, builds a group portrait of men at work. It’s all Mamet-mimetic, and hilarious, until the pathos starts to leak around the peripheries. Hansen has superb timing and an ear trained to the nuances of nonstop workplace abrasion. “George walked out and Mike told the mechanics, ‘I’ll kill that floor-whore someday, he tries knuckling my head about cars. You’ll find him flat under the truck hoist. Won’t be nothing there but a stain. Waltzing in here, talking chassis and what all. The golf pants industry’ll go bust.’ ”

Less successful, perhaps, are Hansen’s few forays into genre or comedic hyperbole: “My Kid’s Dog,” which labors to play out a small conceit (father hates family dog), or the title story, in which a “Double Indemnity”-style murder goes grotesquely wrong. (“Dutch scowled at me, fixed on his Peltor ‘Red Dome’ hearing protectors, ripped the cord on the chain saw so it started snarling . . . and walked with firm purpose to the snoozing object of his dislike.”) Both deviations suggest that Hansen achieves his most affecting—and comic—expressions when he stays close to one side or the other of the felt real. Then, story by story, brick by felt-and-known brick, he builds us a place bright with imagining and loud with Midwesterners talking with all the idioms of home.

 

Sven Birkerts, director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, is the author, most recently, of The Other Walk: Essays.

Ron Hansen is the author of eight novels and two short story collections, including The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Atticus, and Mariette in Ecstasy. He graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, and went on to the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop where he studied with John Irving. He is now Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Professor in Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University.

Winter 2014

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