Painful, real moments of humanity

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Special to The Times

A great many short stories now are too comfortable. Many are edited to within an inch of their lives and take subtlety to a microscopic level where it doesn’t really have an impact. Others are deliberately edgy -- a hip form of comfort. By contrast, Kerry Neville Bakken’s debut collection disturbs by putting the reader in touch with queasy moments of humanity between people. Beyond that, her stories are simple, straightforward American fiction that works -- making “Necessary Lies” a delight and something of a rare bird.

Her characters live and breathe, especially the children. In “Remains,” about a missing child, the young Kathy observes her father’s penchant for “[a]bsurd lessons, like the stupid slogans in health class: This is your brain on drugs. Only abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.”

A child in “Vigil” observes her mother dieting after her father leaves. “Little by little, she shrank, her body began to disappear, until I knew we had lost her.”

Later, the girl says to her sister, who got drunk and lost her virginity, “You just puked your guts in the middle of a crowded beach, all over yourself ... and all you care about is how you looked puking?” We know the girl through her observations, and we wince, seeing afresh the bad ways people suffer through image and sex.


The collection begins with “The Effects of Light,” a beautiful and haunting story of a man traveling with his wife to Greece to retrieve the remains of his sister, who has killed herself.

Instead of using descriptions of the Greek countryside to create solace in the face of grief, Bakken gives us a sense of unquiet, “Only a desert meeting the blue sea, dunes sprouting scrub pine.... “

Nikos, a native, shows Jack and Sarah around. Jack treats him with the mild disdain Americans often show foreigners who speak poor English. At the beach, Nikos warns Jack about sea urchins: “If you are so lucky to step on one, you must pee on you,” meaning urinate on the wound, and Jack, who is on crutches, reminds Nikos that he can’t walk, and that the proper word is “unlucky.” Later, Sarah observes that Nikos had been the dead sister’s lover.

Sarah’s observation is not the crux of the story. There is no single inexorable moment. As important is Kate’s letter, describing a kouros hidden in the garden of Kyria Anna, owner of the rooming house where Kate had stayed. Kyria Anna shows Jack and Sarah that ancient marble figure of a young man. “I not show him to everyone,” explains Anna. “Not to the Germans.... Not to Greeks. Not to government. You show, you lose.”

Although Bakken’s stories don’t really have a climax, they swell and surge with moments that make the reader pause.

For instance, “Eggs” emphasizes the unease of Annie and Noah, a childless couple seeing the multitude of baby pictures on a fertility clinic wall. Later Annie’s sister Lizzie curses Annie for the flowers she sends her after Lizzie decides to have an abortion.


Then the story moves to a sixth-floor walk-up in New York’s East Village, where their youngest sister, JoJo, who just had her tongue pierced, is spurning normal life -- and doing all right. It’s stable, middle-class Annie, the one who took over the family flower business, who’s losing it, screwing up bridal bouquets and tulips.

The final two stories fall flat. The first, “The Body/Love Problem,” concerns a love affair between a doctor’s wife, Helena, and a friend from the country club, Ethan. Helena detaches from men during sex, but this old well-worn theme and the country-club element, which Bakken relates without irony or sensitivity, causes the reader to detach from the story. The second, “The Renter’s Guide to the Hamptons,” is a story about adultery, but the author isn’t sensitive to the subtle social practices of the place.

What’s great about most of Bakken’s stories is what they aren’t. They aren’t self-conscious exercises in restraint, like those mannered New York or Parisian tales that invariably have cafes in them. They aren’t opportunities for making sly fun of tawdry, bourgeois life, nor exercises in being writerly. They are good tales about real situations that make the reader turn, look at everyday life and wince a bit.


Laurel Maury reviews books for a variety of publications.