May 15, 2014

Book review | ‘Funny Once’ is emotionally heavy but a pleasure to read.

Although suicide shows up in every tale, Antonya Nelson’s short story collection “Funny Once” is no downer as it shows the resilience and warmth of those left behind.

Not just anyone can keep an 18-wheeler under control. Especially when it’s loaded to capacity.

Antonya Nelson, whose stories have appeared in Harper’s and The New Yorker, among other journals, offers this new collection, “Funny Once.”

“Funny Once” is packed tight with a variety of family complexes, personal neuroses, suicide, loyalty, love, self-discovery and everything in between. With few exceptions, Nelson is in complete control, and the result is both powerful and extremely touching.

Every tale makes some reference to suicide, but the result is not dismal. In fact, it comes up so frequently that the effect is similar to saying a word over and over until it starts to sound unfamiliar and you’re forced to consider what the word means.

Nelson’s characters do not contemplate taking their lives. She does not write dark scenes of self-violence, and suicide is not presented as an exit strategy. These stories are mostly about the hole that someone’s passing leaves; suicide is painted as a thief.

“Literally” is the story of a now-single father of two struggling to hold his family together three years after his wife’s death, a possible suicide. He reflects that on the day he proposed to her, she warned him that, as a teenager, she used to turn off her headlights, close her eyes and speed into traffic because she just didn’t care what might happen.

His wife wanted him to know that she had a self-destructive streak and to allow him the chance to move on without her. But three years after her death, he still can’t move on.

It may be macabre to make this comparison, but reading this collection seems a lot like having a caravan of 18-wheelers speed toward me. In a good way.

With the exception of the somewhat unwieldy novella, “Three Wishes,” Nelson is a flawless driver.

“Three Wishes” begins with a tense scene: Three siblings transport their ill father to a senior-living facility, duck-taped to his recliner.

Only about a third of the way through its 100-plus pages does this single story hits its stride, when the brother Hugh begins a mostly emotional affair with a woman whom we’re led to equate with his deceased mother.

Stacy’s hair is the color of his mother’s, her children are spaced the same as Hugh’s siblings and are the same genders; she even miscarried a child, which is like his having lost his brother to suicide. But to Stacy, Hugh is no more than Ernie from “Sesame Street,” non-threatening and sweet, someone who won’t put up a fight for her when confronted by her husband.

“The Village,” on the other hand, is short-story perfection.

Darcy is one of six siblings, the black sheep of the family, and the one who is closest to the father. During a difficult time in her life, the father confides to her that he has been having an affair. “She knew he’d provided his indiscretion to Darcy in order to mitigate the lonesome horror of her own.”

Darcy meets Lois, the father’s lover, and comes to think of her as another mother. Lois saves Darcy’s life, literally.

Many years later, when Lois dies, Darcy travels to pay her respects and meets Lois’ adult children. The siblings’ perception of their mother is that she was “At best, decorative … A luxury, nonessential.”

But Lois had reached Darcy, taught her to cook — code for giving her the gift of self-soothing that she had sorely lacked — and passed to her an enthusiasm and love for living that she wouldn’t have found on her own.

The wrap-up faultlessly gathers all that mattered most in the piece. Darcy wanders the aisles of a kitchen supply store: “She could be pleased for hours, touching these silly perfect inventions, admiring their discrete, specific purposes.”

Darcy, too, had wanted to kill herself, but Lois had saved her. At the end she speaks to Lois’ ex-husband and tries to explain her presence at the funeral. The man responds glibly to the idea of his ex-wife’s having helped by saying, “It takes a village.”

“But, she thought that maybe it took less than that. One person, perhaps. Yet it had to be the right person. And that actually might be not less but more than a village. Harder to find on a map, for instance.”

Anne Kniggendorf can be reached at

Funny Once by Antonya Nelson (304 pages; Bloomsbury USA; $26)

Wichita native and KU graduate Antonya Nelson will read from “Funny Once” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Raven Book Store, 6 E. Seventh St., Lawrence.

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