An expert covers rich terrain


Short-story master Ron Hansen writes skillfully about historical and modern times.

As a writer, Ron Hansen — author of eight novels, a collection of short stories and a book of essays — defies easy labels and comparisons, and the scope of his sweeping talents are on clear display in his remarkable collection of 19 new and selected stories.

These stories range from the heartbreaking to the hilarious, the contemporary to the historical, the real to the fantastical. And though this diversity lends a gratifying anthological quality to the collection, the stories are also unified by certain themes Hansen clearly holds dear, resulting in a book that is a cohesive and moving exploration of how our own similarities will always be greater than our differences — a sentiment echoed in the remarks by the narrator of My Communist (about a Polish priest being shadowed by a Soviet agent in Palo Alto) to his antagonist: “And that is when I tell him how even in such a terrible times it was to me pleasing to have him around. We shared thousand-year history. . . . We are feeling nostalgia for identical things, and for these reasons he could never be my enemy.”

Hansen is perhaps best known for his historically based fiction, and several of the stories in She Loves Me Not pull from such sepia subject matter. The great blizzard of 1888 that devastated the Midwest (in the riveting Wickedness), for example — as well as illuminating stories that are apparent homages to works by Ernest Hemingway and Henry James ( The Killers and The Governess, respectively). The “historical” stories in this collection succeed because Hansen obviously believes fiction should do more than simply provide a convenient vessel for interesting facts. He is an expert at negotiating such rich terrain in a meaningful way, and the timelessness of his compassion, as well as the depth of his research, is nothing short of stunning.

Consider this depiction of Oscar Wilde in the opening selection from She Loves Me Not, a story inspired by the 27-year-old Irishman’s speaking tour through the United States in 1882. The narrator, a newspaper journalist, comes upon Wilde stretched out in an Omaha hotel bed:

“When Wilde got up and stabbed out his cigarette, I saw that he was far bigger than I’d imagined from eastern press reports where he was so often characterized as a sissy because of his florid manner, his fat, fishy, voluptuous lips — one critic called it a “carnal mouth” — and the feminine effluence of his undulant, shoulder-length, chestnut-brown hair. Wilde was a hefty six foot three — six inches taller than me — rather wider at the waist than at his chest, but with large, farmerish hands to go with a large, pallid, slack-jawed face, a face that was akin to Billy the Kid’s.”

What follows is a beautiful, poignant story that conveys Wilde’s famous wit, intelligence and brazenness — while simultaneously digging much deeper, providing readers with a humanizing portrait of a young man who is just beginning to realize he is doomed to exist as a curiosity to others. That Hansen refuses to treat him as such is a testament to the author’s powers of empathy.

And yet Hansen’s ability to transport readers in time is just one of his many gifts. A number of these stories are set in his native Midwest, and it is difficult not to be reminded of the important role the Pacific Northwest plays in Raymond Carver’s stories when reading Hansen’s depictions of his own home. In Nebraska, he evokes a small farming community: “Everyone is famous in this town. And everyone is necessary. Townspeople go to the Vaughn Grocery Store for the daily news, and to the Home Restaurant for history class, especially at evensong when the old people eat graveled pot roast and lemon meringue pie and calmly sip coffee from cups they tip to their mouths with both hands.”

But do not be fooled, Hansen is no sentimentalist. Even this idealistic portrait of rural America resonates as an elegy of sorts, Chekhovian in its deceptive simplicity, whereas other stories display certain neo-Gothic sensibilities, containing violence, dark humor and grotesque characters that call to mind the work of Flannery O’Connor (as well as, on occasion, her penchant for spiritual allegory).

Hansen has the extraordinary ability to write convincingly from the perspectives of characters as disparate as a 19th century English servant and a present-day, down-on-his-luck Nebraska wedding singer, and there are also his occasional, wondrous forays into magical realism to enjoy. There’s a story about supernatural cattle mutilation on a Midwestern farm and another that seems intended as a modern retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.

Walt Whitman once observed: “The mark of a true writer is their ability to mystify the familiar and familiarize the strange.” If the Good Gray Poet is indeed correct, Ron Hansen is easily one of America’s truest and finest living writers, and nowhere are Hansen’s great skills more evident than in this masterful collection.

Skip Horack reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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