By Kirk Nesset
University of Pittsburgh Press, 139 pp., $24.95
Admittedly, three-fourths of the way into Paradise Road, I was pretty high on Kirk Nesset's collection of 10 short stories. They're good. But then he knocked me over with one word.
It appears in "Record Shop Girl," about a 40-ish musician who's "never loved ... or even liked things with passion" trying to relate to the title character, a young clerk. It's first-person, Nesset sketching emotional isolation. The characterization comes to a point as the man spends a (customary) night at home alone: "I pad into the living room, fresh-showered, wearing my towel."
"My towel." Exactly: With one syllable, Nesset supplies a precision-lens view of his narrator's soul. Only someone as irrevocably warped by narcissism as he would both personalize his bath towel and feel compelled to tell us about it. The fact that he's easing on headphones (to listen to Satie) is gravy. Now we not only know who he is, we feel it.
It's a tough trick in fiction to create a self-aware character whose language still reveals to the reader something the character doesn't know himself. Nesset's good at it. But that's far from all that's good about this book, which earned the Drue Heinz Literature Prize.
"Record Shop Girl," as it happens, spirals into ever-darker terrain. But Nesset, who teaches at Allegheny College, in Meadville, Pa., is an able chameleon. Though most of these stories are set in the rural Pacific Northwest, he offers many tones and voices.
Take "The Prince of Perch Fishing," about the character introduced to us as the Widow Fudge and her relationship with a group of small-town fisherman. It starts out laconic, like Garrison Keillor by way of Raymond Carver. But then it turns on you, the rivalry between the narrator and a dolorous guy named Reverend Bob (who's not a reverend) insidiously twining with their tenuous partnership in a marijuana scheme.
By contrast, there's "Still Life with Spanish Guitar," told third-person, over the shoulder of a young woman out on a bad date. Though she has "gone out her way lately finding these least feasible men," she ends up trapped again by other people's expectations. In "Be With Somebody," an aging gay club-lifer, recently jilted, tries to aid a hard-luck girl. The narrator describes himself thus: "A thin pale Mr. M, is how I appeared in this light, with less hair and nothing noble to squint at."
"Paradise Road," with its ruefully self-effacing narrator -- his wife's run off -- at first seems to reprise Guys Who Fish and Lie (not necessarily about fishing) and Bust Each Other's Balls. But even here Nesset pulls off gemlike scenes, such as the moment when the narrator, Don, is visited by his wife's brother, bearing messages of conciliation -- only to watch as the runaway girl Don is platonically sheltering runs half-naked out of the night woods, like the black-panty-wearing embodiment of his myriad infidelities past.
But what makes these stories most pleasurable is Nesset's supple style, capable of bluntness and lyricism alike. In any mode, he hardly seems capable of writing an uninteresting sentence. Take this scene-setter, from the earthily funny "Somebody Decent," about an inveterate trash-picker dealing (like so many Nesset characters) with love gone rotten:
Up the hill past the college, traffic had eddied. A pickup's pulled over, or half-assedly tried. A woman's finger points from the passenger window, assessing. Scrounge, Ed grunts, gunning around. Curtis gapes at the junk stacks as they pass. A box spring and mattress loom against a tall maple. Crates spill over with broken tiles, empty paint cans, tar paper, shingles. A tricycle, sans seat and front wheel, crowns the bright heap.
Nesset can bewitch you with one word. But he can also make 100 sing like a chorus.
Kirk Nesset and Drue Heinz judge Hilary Masters The Drue Heinz Literature Prize Reading and Award Ceremony 8:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 17. Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, Oakland.