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Friday, January 24th, 2003


 

You Are Not a Stranger Here

by Adam Haslett

A review by Laura Miller

Short stories usually come in one of two varieties: O. Henry or Chekhov. The first type features an amusing gizmo of a plot that makes it entertaining, even memorable, but not very realistic. The second tends to spin out a meltingly evocative impression of an entire life most often a wasted one by portraying a few key moments that form some turning point in the character's awareness. Adam Haslett's stories, nine of which are collected here in his first book, boldly partake of both traditions. They're multilayered psychological portraits, but they are full of surprises. They have twists, but the twists usually take the form of radical shifts in perspective on the deep currents in his characters' lives.

The collection's kick-off story, "Notes to My Biographer," for example, begins at a hurtling pace, its first-person narrator one of those winningly forthright old gentlemen who tolerate no guff: "Two things to get straight from the beginning: I hate doctors and have never joined a support group in my life ... the mental health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hilltop in the rain before I touch their snake oil or listen to the visionless chatter of men half my age." "Darn tootin'!" you're inclined to chime in; this codger sounds fun. But soon enough, as Frank Singer, in a car appropriated from a too-trusting niece, hauls us out to California to meet his son Graham, we realize that he's in the grip of a full-blown manic episode, and that he's managed to bankrupt himself and torment everyone in his life by refusing to take his medication. OK, so this isn't a story about a lovable character, but one about the ravages of mental illness.

Frank manages to wreak a considerable amount of havoc in very little time, but in the story's closing scene, as Graham confronts his father in a posh hotel room neither of them can afford, the younger man breaks down when Frank asks him what it's like to be gay:

"You want to know what it's like? I'll tell you. It's worrying all the time that one day he's going to leave me. And you want to know why that is? It's got nothing to do with being gay ... I tell you it's selfish not to take the pills because I know. Because I take them ... I don't want Eric to find me in a parking lot in the middle of the night in my pajamas talking to a stranger .... I don't want him to find me hanged. I used to cast fire from the tips of my fingers some weeks and burn everything in my path and it was all progress and it was all incredibly, incredibly beautiful. And some weeks I couldn't brush my hair."

Ah, so it's not a story about the ravages of mental illness after all, but one about the price paid for mental health. More often than not, Haslett's characters find themselves contemplating a choice between subduing their demons or facing them head on; these stories are full of people deciding not to swallow their pills. Others, like the bereaved mother who rejects a young psychiatrist's offer of talk therapy in "The Good Doctor," tend to have their own way of meeting the extremes of human emotion. The twist in an Adam Haslett story is often a revelation about who is actually the stronger in a pair of characters: A middle-aged brother protecting the sister he lives with from the knowledge of an old betrayal that stunted her life doesn't realize that she has forgiven the culprit long ago; a teenage volunteer who kindly visits an institutionalized schizophrenic turns out to need more nurturance and comfort than the sick woman herself.

It's tempting to think that the advent of certain new psychiatric drugs, such as antidepressants, medications that challenge what once felt like immutable truths about an individual's nature or about human nature itself, has brought with it a new kind of storytelling. Or perhaps writers like Haslett would have found this territory on their own. Whatever their genesis, the stories in You Are Not a Stranger Here make for an auspicious debut.


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