FAMILY TERRORISTS by Antonya Nelson (Houghton Mifflin: $19.95; 269 pp.). Webster’s dictionary defines a terrorist as someone who “uses force or threats to demoralize, intimidate and subjugate,” but that doesn’t even come close to describing the infinitely subtle variations on the word that Antonya Nelson creates in her newest collection of stories, “Family Terrorists.”
There are lies so old and layered, so non-verbal, that they have become hopelessly woven into the fabric of the families appearing here. The things these characters tell or don’t tell each other, the way they deal with pain, and what they do in an emergency, is all a kind of personal terrorism no dictionary can encompass. Antonya Nelson gives the word more power in every story.
Unfortunately, the title piece, a novella, isn’t as successful. Its premise--four grown siblings coming together for their parents’ wedding (they are getting remarried after a divorce)--is full of potential, but the story never really gathers sufficient momentum. This is partly due to too many active characters, both people and dogs.
Of the stories, some are fine, some are great, and one, “Naked Ladies,” is truly masterful. Nelson has a talent for finding a detail, then capping it with an unusual yet perfect observation. Here is a description from “The Written Word,” another wonderful story: “Ben was gnawing his left hand, something he’d started doing just a couple of weeks before, when school began. He claimed it itched and only his teeth helped . . . His classmates called him Mandible. Already he was weird, and he had so many years of school left to go.” Antonya Nelson is a growing, vibrant writer. It will be a pleasure seeing what she does next.