In his best novels, among them “Mariette in Ecstasy” and “Atticus,” Ron Hansen not only devised powerful and well-put-together themes, but ambushed us with phrases of marauding beauty. The collection of stories in “She Loves Me Not” is decidedly uneven, but here and there such phrases come like sudden abductions.
“The Sleepwalker,” a brief sketch, perceptively sets out the feelings and fears of a wife whose once active husband is declining into Alzheimer’s. Then it goes way beyond perception. The time will come when to his wandering mind her reassuring reminders of reality seem like threats. “She is becoming increasingly a stranger invading his littler portion of certainty.”
A similar shivering transformation crowns “The Sparrow,” the strongest story in the book. At 12, Aidan Manion loses his mother when the small plane she’s learning to fly crashes after a reckless maneuver by her instructor. The bereavement is beautifully done; Aidan’s patient father, Emmett, holds the family together, and passing time does its work; yet beneath resumed normality there is stubborn pain. The young family priest speaks wisely and helpfully to Aidan but something there is in the boy that is only partly helped. Real help arrives with an ingeniously unlikely scene.
Emmett is one of several fathers who come to talk to the class about his job. A sparrow flies in through an open window and bats hysterically about the room. The father has everyone go outside so that the panicked bird, left quietly alone, can find its way out. And back in the classroom with the others, Aidan discovers “that feeling of friendship with the silence he had been hearing but had not understood.”
A number of the stories are sketchy or forced, or both. Hansen, who at times has introduced the uncanny or supernatural into his fiction in a way that enhances their realism, uses such elements more awkwardly here. “Wilderness” is a confused mishmash in which several characters, along with a cat and dog, swap identities. In “True Romance” a farm couple is beset by a monster who eviscerates several of their cows. Other stories reflect, not very successfully, James’s “Turn of the Screw,’’ Hemingway’s “The Killers,” and one of Poe’s horror stories.
The best pieces are cast in a lyrical realism. “Nebraska” (Hansen comes from there) is a bucolic catalogue of places and folkways where the writing elevates a series of conventional scenes or, more exactly, memories. “Wickedness” is a grim recital of deaths and survivals in the killing winters of a century or so ago; the piece manages to suggest something more than a series of disasters, as if a killing winter stood in some way for the splintery freezing inside the human soul.
A couple of pieces have a lighter touch, though perhaps rather forced. One is a journalist’s account of Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour of the United States, seeded with the writer’s satirical epigrams. Most are familiar but agreeable to revisit.
“Can I Just Sit Here for a While?” performs a switch on the expectable. Rick Bozack, a traveling salesman in medical supplies, revels in every detail of his life: the fresh-smelling new car he rents for each trip, the immaculate hotel rooms, the restaurant meals, the contact with clients. “What was this ‘Death of a Salesman’ crap? he’d say.” A former schoolmate who’s made a fortune starting his own business persuades him to do the same, arguing that it is degrading to work for others. Rick takes the first steps. He investigates bank credit and distributors, then suddenly realizes it’s all too stressful, and he’d be a fool to give up what he has. Neat if somewhat contrived.
There is no contrivance at all in “Red Letter Days.” It is the journal of a man in his 70s who records time’s losses — an invalid wife, friends dying, his own incipiently failing health — and his determination, like that of a Padgett Powell character speaking of death, to “live until.” An accomplished golfer, he tells of daily games with his remaining contemporaries, his tutoring of a promising young protégé, the pocket money he earns repairing golf equipment. He tells of occasional tension with his wife, the love that pulses beneath it, his quiet pleasure in pleasing her. He writes of the altering, fading world around him as if it were the changing leaves of autumn. Going gentle into that good night, he does not rage but remarks.