'Refund' burrows into what's right, wrong about 21st century America

Karen E. Bender's 'Refund' is built on the stresses, strivings and moral lapses money engenders

"Write something beautiful and honest and that makes you very proud," Karen E. Bender advised aspiring writers in a 2010 interview with the literary magazine Our Stories. "Fall into your sentences, enjoy writing them, love the world you are creating."

It isn't just Bender who loves her sentences and the worlds she creates with them. Her novels "Like Normal People" (2000) and "Town of Empty Rooms" (2013) earned the kind of critical attention most new novelists only dream of. Her short stories, two of which won Pushcart Prizes, have appeared in literary collections, including "The Best American Short Stories" and the Iowa Review.

"Refund," Bender's first books of stories, is organized around the theme of money and the stresses, strivings and moral lapses it engenders. Set against the backdrop of the 2008 crash, it's proof positive that Bender's acclaim is well deserved.

"Refund" meets the challenge of the short-story writer — to create a vivid, believable world in which compelling characters pull the reader up and over a taut narrative arc, all within the space of a few pages. Taken separately, each of the "Refund" stories is an impeccably constructed miniature, a ship in a bottle that makes the reader wonder how the author got all that detail, all that craft, into such a small container. Taken as a whole, the collection is a 13-stop journey into some richly imagined worlds.

Bender doesn't make it easy on herself. She writes difficult, nuanced characters in difficult, precarious situations, none of them angels, none demons, all of them hanging onto their emotional, marital and/or financial stability by thin threads. Bender's beautiful prose and poignant observations make us chew our own nails as we read, rooting for every member of her motley crew. Money can't buy happiness, the book affirms, but poverty doesn't ensure virtue, either.

In "Theft," 82-year-old Ginger Klein, a con artist who impersonates charity fundraisers to bilk people out of their money, boards a Carnival cruise ship with a shiny new purse and a terminal diagnosis. Ginger is not admirable, but her backstory makes her sympathetic: she and her sister Evelyn were abandoned as children, left homeless and destitute on the Los Angeles streets.

In her stateroom, Ginger remembers, "Once, Evelyn told Ginger that she tried not to be afraid for five minutes a day. She was impressed that Evelyn could identify when she was afraid, for her own fear floated just out side her skin, like a cloud…Evelyn's grief metamorphosed into a bloodthirsty envy of the loved, the parented. She wanted their expensive possessions: the jeweled brooches, the feathered hats."

"Anything for Money" is another L.A. story, but its protagonist dwells at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. Lenny Weiss is a Hollywood executive producer who has everything — including, suddenly, Aurora, his 12-year-old grandchild, dropped on his doorstep by Lenny's estranged addict daughter, who's on her way to rehab for the nth time. We sense Lenny's heart cracking open when he sees his granddaughter for the first time. "The girl stood at the top of the stairs. He would not have been aware of her but for the ferocity with which she stood there, as though she had dreamed herself in this position for years."

The story turns on Lenny's evolution from ruthless, privileged tyrant to heartsick, desperate grandfather. When he learns that Aurora is profoundly ill and that his wealth and connections can't save her, the tragedy tests Lenny's warring selves.

In "The Third Child," a mother of two secretly takes a pregnancy test and makes a plan. "One bad car crash, one growing lump, a few missed paychecks would send them packing. They could not afford to have a heart attack, to lose their minds…She called the babysitter, kissed her children goodbye, and went to the clinic."

Bender's willingness to go deep, to burrow down into what's right and wrong about 21st century America and Americans is a mirror that draws us in and does not allow us to look away.

Maran is the author of several books, including "Why We Write."


Karen E. Bender
Counterpoint: 272 pp., $25

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