I’ve been a fan of Antonya Nelson’s fiction for years. Here’s my review of her new collection, Funny Once, for Dallas Morning News:
“If you took all the lessons of others, you might never do anything,” Antonya Nelson writes in her seventh short-story collection, Funny Once.
The characters in Nelson’s fiction have never been concerned with learning from other people’s mistakes, let alone their own. It’s not as if they aren’t trying to improve — the collection’s title comes from a story about a character named Phoebe, who gives up drinking after her husband accidentally sets her hair on fire during a shared bender.
At a party, Phoebe holds on to her tenuous sobriety, her shaved head hidden with a scarf, while listening to a drunken person tell a joke, repeating the punch line several times. “Phoebe made a mental note, in case she went back to drinking: It’s only funny once.”
Still, as hard as these characters try, it’s difficult for them not to fall back into old patterns. Nelson’s characters lie their way through AA meetings, philander, fall in love with the married and divorce extravagantly, some as many as three times, while retaining their bonds with the children they met along the way. Despite the upheaval, Nelson’s characters make excellent, caring parents and grandparents, both biological and surrogate.
In “First Husband,” a phone call awakens Lovey at 2 a.m. It’s Bernadette, the youngest daughter of Lovey’s ex-husband, asking if she can watch her three kids while Bernadette tries to chase down her wayward husband. “Lovey had lived through those adolescent years with her ex-husband’s three daughters,” Nelson writes, “each more harrowing than the one before, as if they were competing, culminating with the spectacular miscreance of Bernadette, who apparently had no kernel of self-control or will or restraint at her center.”
Still, Lovey’s not one to punish someone for past mistakes and agrees to the middle-of-the-night baby-sitting whose purpose is not what it seems, she discovers after Bernadette leaves a trail of her activities on Facebook.
Nelson often joins her characters in the midst of what passes for regular life following some cataclysm, such as a spouse divorcing or an elderly parent dying. It would all be a bit of a downer if Nelson weren’t so funny. Nelson, the Cullen Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston, has an acid wit and a laser-focused detector for the lies people tell themselves, which she holds up and examines as if they were brightly colored jewels.
Funny Once concludes with a masterful, loopy novella, “Three Wishes,” the story of the Panik family of Wichita, Kan., that begins with its dementia-suffering patriarch Sam strapped down to his recliner with duct tape so that his grown children can transport him to a nursing home on the back of a pickup. Sam’s son Hugh had been living with his father until his condition grew too extreme to keep him at home. Hugh’s sister Hannah decided it was time to bring Sam to the nursing home, and the less-than-ideal manner in which they accomplish the move reflects the inadvisable way they conduct most of their lives, grasping toward love and stability and sometimes achieving it for a fleeting moment.
In “Three Wishes,” as in many of Nelson’s stories, there is a tribe of kooky neighbors whose unconventional behavior reflects the inner turmoil of her main characters. In this novella, scavenging hippies are always lounging on their burnt orange velveteen porch sofa, and have let wilderness return to the lawn the prior owner once maintained with “a kind of religious or military fervor.” In “Chapter Two,” an eccentric neighbor, Bergeron Love, the gone-to-seed daughter of a prominent Houston family and a “grande dame in her own mind,” is apt to show up at her neighbor’s door naked and raving. These neighbors help the protagonists feel their affairs are slightly more in order by comparison.
What can readers make of all the jumbled-up families presented in Funny Once? Throughout the stories, life goes on despite its imperfection and ismore endurable when accompanied by a sense of humor. Or as Nelson puts it, “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.”