What could possibly be more valuable than money? The answer, of course, is time, as Karen Bender reminds us with her new collection of stories. Bender has previously published two novels, A Town of Empty Rooms and Like Normal People, along with stories in magazines such as The New Yorker and Granta. In the 13 electrifying tales of Refund, she examines the themes of wealth and poverty, health and disease, and the suddenness with which our lives can change — or even end.
The first story, Reunion, opens at the height of the recession in 2009 with Anna Green about to attend her 20th high school reunion. In desperation, she pays the admission in hopes of making business connections, since “with a few skipped paychecks, a car accident, a broken roof, they were on the edge of ruin.” The seemingly low-key narrative suddenly churns with suspense as violence erupts at the party, and an old school chum named Warren saves her life. The story takes another unexpected turn when Warren reveals himself to be a scam artist. Bender portrays with heartbreaking realism Anna slipping safely back into her more ordinary, anxiety-ridden routine with relief, as she and her husband reconnect late at night, “huddled in this island of time together before they would all separate again.”
The shifty figure of the scam artist makes another appearance in the beautifully written Theft, which follows 82-year-old Ginger Klein on a cruise to Alaska. After making her living as a swindler for decades, she has been diagnosed with dementia. The author uses the ocean voyage as a double-pronged plot device, serving as a last hurrah and a means of final escape. Bender’s examination of Ginger is frank, with a clear-eyed assessment of the character: “Her awareness had been her greatest gift: of the best hour to meet the lonely, of the hairstyle that would make her look most innocent, of the raised eyebrow that indicated a person’s longing, and of course, of the moment when she knew that what a person owned would belong to her.”
Purely admirable or lovable people don’t inhabit Bender’s fictional universe. In Anything for Money, Lenny Weiss subjects TV show contestants to humiliating ordeals to determine whose greed will overcome their scruples. In a cunning literary maneuver, Bender has fate interrupt Lenny’s self-satisfied existence, and suddenly, the phrase “Anything for Money” takes on an entirely new and chilling significance.
Time, money, life, and death emerge again in the title story, about a Manhattan couple whose art has not proven successful. Josh and Clarissa “worked at their painting for years, presented their work to a world that was indifferent, floundered in debt, defaulted on student loans, began to lie to their parents about their financial status, and lived in a state of constant fear.” Bender conflates a fear of poverty with the fear of death, as Refund evolves into a 9/11 story in which safety — physical, emotional, financial — seems increasingly elusive.
The conundrum of reaching mid-life and finding oneself adrift haunts the entire collection. In one of the best stories, Free Lunch, the first-person narrator finds herself in a North Carolina town “that seemed to have arisen with the invention of Walmart, the housing developments resembling vinyl stage sets in which suburban mothers would run amok.” Laid off, with her husband’s job security precarious, the protagonist attracts the attention of the town’s Chasidic rabbi and his wife. Rabbi Jacob persists in wooing these secular, Jewish newcomers to join his congregation, “like a suitor who could not be discouraged.” Bender sprinkles in welcome bits of sardonic humor, as the narrator caves to their advances: “So, finally, one day in April, we trudged over to the rabbi’s apartment one warm Saturday for a free Pesach lunch. That was the main reason we went; our own desperate loneliness and a free lunch. Perhaps that was why anyone dipped a toe into religion.”
In this tale, as in some of the others, Bender ends on notes of hope and despair: hope because one is still loved and can love, despair at a life fraught with worry and disappointment. The author’s sharp observations and fine, crisp writing keep these stories crackling with energy and wit, while they excavate the buried secrets of 21st century America.
Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.