Nice Big American Baby
by Judy Budnitz
A review by Jill Owens
Judy Budnitz's new book of short stories, Nice Big American Baby, is, as
Freudenberger aptly points out in her recommendation, not very much like anything
else. Although it is dynamic and varies from story to story, Budnitz's voice is
unusual and precise; it remains an undercurrent of its own. Casting around for
comparisons, influences, or other points of reference, the writers who come to
mind are Amy
Hempel (for her minimalism and sharp dialogue), Margaret
Atwood (for her dystopian climates and anthropological slant), Joy
Williams, one of my favorite American writers (for her general strangeness
and social satire -- though Budnitz is somewhat darker, less hopeful), and flashes
Moore-style wit are sprinkled throughout:
"What was it like growing up in the South?" he'd asked once. "Were you a
debutante? Did you have a coming-out party? Cotillion?"
"Oh, sure," she'd said. "Debutante balls, white dresses, full curtsies, sloe
gin fizzes. I was lucky, I got spoken for early on. All the debutantes left
single at the end of the night were taken out behind the barn and shot."
While this is a difficult book to pin down or pigeonhole, it isn't a difficult
book to marvel at or enjoy. Budnitz traffics in contemporary, global themes.
(Rarely, too contemporary; the weak point in the collection is "Preparedness,"
a satire of our current president that's a little too obvious; however, the
rest of the story was effective enough -- and the macho, childish figure general
enough -- that I actually think this story may read better in the future.) Boundaries
and borders zigzag through the collection: America's physical and psychic borders,
including the Mexican/American line; race; politics; and the gap between televised
tragedy and reality. Perhaps the most recurrent and dramatic is the border between
childhood -- here seen as almost a separate species -- and adulthood, exploring
how and whether it is possible to grow up.
Although there is an occasional unsubtle detail, these stories overwhelmingly
work gracefully and well. "Immersion," a somewhat bizarre vision of
polio and racial integration, is emotionally engaging and balanced; "Miracle,"
about a jet-black child born to baffled Caucasian parents, is smart and uncomfortable
in its treatment of love, identity, and race; and "Nadia" is both
painful and funny in its drop-dead satirical tone. Budnitz has a knack for including
one or two very striking visual images per story (a field of waving, muscular
arms; salesmen shoved into an unlocked pen, proudly hoping to sell their way
out; webbed feet). "Visitors," a short, powerfully unsettling story
told almost entirely through dialogue, is a kind of reversal of the parent-child
relationship, rich with uncanny visions and ominous momentum.
Provocative, disturbing, wry, and just plain fascinating, Nice Big American
Baby is some of the best new American short fiction I've read in years.