Paradise Road

Kirk Nesset

The University of Pittsburgh Press
2007
$24.95.

The gritty, hard-spun men and women of Kirk Nesset’s Paradise Road, winner of the 2007 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, aren’t the characters short stories typically center on in contemporary literature, despite (or because of) the late Ray Carver’s contributions to the genre. The prize-winning work of Jim Shepard, for example, often fictionalizes the historically significant past while the popular tales of George Saunders satirize the plausible desperation of our future. These days we’re more likely to come across the characters of Kirk Nesset in line at the gas station on a Wednesday afternoon rather than on the page—whether it’s the guy in front of us with a six-pack of Bud and Snickers bar for lunch, or the gal clutching his arm all sun burns and cigarettes in the middle of the December. Nesset’s stories, however, whether compressed into two or four page narratives, or longer, more typical arcs, both reveal the depths of such characters and the lack of depth in other places, and they often do so simultaneously.

“The Prince of Perch Fishing,” the book’s longest effort at thirty-plus pages, opens the collection. Principally, the plot involves a run-of-the-mill love triangle where two down-on-their-luck fishing buddies silently war over the affection of a dangerously attractive and spontaneous widow, who flirts with a whole cast of characters as they bait their hooks. On the surface, the plot seems ordinary, predictable, if engaging. However, at the center of this triangle is also a stash of seriously dank, drool-on-yourself, homegrown weed cultivated and nurtured by the same two men, a cash cow guaranteed to set their prospects straight, as long they work together. And, for the most part, they do. That is, until greed interferes, as you know it will, just as you know whoever gets the girl in the end has more to do with who gets the weed than anything else, all of which leads the narrator to reflect as the story closes and his prospects seem bleak: “I might not look the type to sit in the dark all night with a loaded gun aimed….But I will if I have to, if it comes to that. And after all these years of waiting to cry I might just cry as I do it.”

Nesset’s best stories take traditional plot elements—betrayal, abandonment, a desperate fool attempting a scam and getting caught—and pump life back into them by introducing the decorously unexpected. In “Be with Somebody” the narrator, David, tries to track down his on-again, off-again lover, Perry, at a local nightspot where Perry’s no doubt on the prowl: “I went anyway. I went to Club Mecca, tipsy already, and drank,” the story begins. But instead of Perry, the narrator runs into, and befriends, a similarly unlucky woman outside the bar who’s pretending to check ID’s while she collects a non-existent weeknight cover charge off unsuspecting patrons. The narrator soon gives up on Perry for the night after spying him in the middle of another predictable flirtation. His unlikely companionship with Gwen, the wannabe bouncer, finally affords him a glimpse of objectivity in his affections toward Perry as the night unfolds in the car and at David’s apartment as Gwen keeps him company. But it’s just a glimpse. Perry, of course, reenters the story later when Gwen’s already, however platonically, wearing only her underwear and David’s t-shirt. But even then, even after Gwen tells it to David straight, he still doesn’t know how to feel: “And me? For a while I wouldn’t know. I wavered, there at the window, hating hell but calling it heaven….He could change over time, he could change overnight. I was patient, if not terribly tough.”

The true highlight of the collection, though, might be the title story. Again, the plot is simple: Don, who lives in a rural area, struggles to get by after his wife has left him. But out for a walk one night on nearby Paradise Road (a place, fittingly enough, of which we’re never given an adequate description) he comes across a wandering woman, naked from the waist up, young, seductive, but all skin and bones, a girl who’s apparently been kicked out of a nearby Buddhist monastery for some brand of misbehavior. Of course, Don takes her in, and it becomes apparent, at least to the reader, that the girl represents to Don the state of his relationship with his wife (sickly, yet attractive, ultimately bad for his health), when really she represents Don’s inability to see things for how they are. Not that Don is able to notice this. Instead, he’s busy composing and revising a tape-recorded letter to his wife, one he knows he’ll never send, and in takes and re-takes, driving in the car or elsewhere, he tells Cindy of his newfound faithfulness, how he hasn’t slept with this young girl who seems more-than-ready for his stifled advances. And he’s also busy taking care of Cindy’s horses, animals he hasn’t in the past cared for, one of which is about to give birth. No need to tell you what happens to the colt when it’s born, or what the fate of Don’s marriage is. No need to suggest what the girl eventually does to anger Don. It doesn’t matter. What’s most impressive about Nesset’s fiction is his ability to explore how we don’t know ourselves, or our intentions, not before we’ve done something, however heroic or awful, not even afterwards, and how it wouldn’t make a difference even if we did. Suffice it to say at the end of “Paradise Road,” when Don phones the police and, in the moment the connection seems lost and the dispatcher asks, “Are you there?” the narrator means this closing comment both literally and figuratively: “He was. For one frozen second in that cracking and sinking, that pause between pauses, he was.”

--Jay Robinson