She Loves Me Not: New & Selected Stories

  • Ron Hansen
  • Scribner
  • 256 pp.

This collection of 19 Ron Hansen stories is an interesting smorgasbord of narrative forms.

Reviewed by Kate Blackwell

Ron Hansen’s fiction — eight novels and a prior story collection — is remarkable for its range, from historical to contemporary settings and subjects as disparate as gunfighters in the Old West (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and cloistered Catholic nuns in New England (the exquisite Mariette in Ecstasy). So it’s no surprise that the 19 stories in his new book — seven are re-runs from his earlier collection, Nebraska — offer an impressive smorgasbord of narrative forms: ghost stories and fantasy, literary and popular fiction, period pieces, a prose poem, and two stories that encapsulate a ferocious storm and a small Midwestern town in the rich, poetic prose that is also a Hansen hallmark.

Several of the new stories are a tour-de-force of period writing. “Wilde in Omaha” gives us a witty rendering of Oscar Wilde’s visit to the city in 1882, in which Hansen has the fictional Wilde speak in the real Wilde’s oft-quoted quips and bon mots. “I could deny myself the pleasure of talking, but not to others the pleasure of listening,” he confides to the worshipful young reporter who narrates the story. As the Irish poet preens and insults the “peasantry” of the West, who nonetheless hang on his every word, the reporter reflects that the high point of his life will be these 15 hours in Wilde’s company.

“The Governess” re-tells Henry James’ famous ghost story The Turn of the Screw as narrated by the housekeeper instead of the governess. In spot-on lower-class dialect, Mrs. Gross resolves the question raised by James’ 1898 novella: Are the ghosts the governess sees meant to be “real” or figments of the governess’ mind? In Hansen’s version it’s the latter. When the younger woman glimpses one of the supposed spirits, actually a former employee sneaking away after a tryst with the housekeeper, Mrs. Gross tells us, “She being a virgin, Evelyn weren’t accustomed to ramrods skulking out of a chamber. Easier for her to imagine a ghost.”

If Hansen takes the ghosts out of James’ story, he is adept at injecting them into his own. A recurring theme in the stories is a sinister sense of a malevolent unknown hovering behind the visible mundane. “Playland,” from the earlier collection, is set in a fantastical Midwestern amusement park in the early 1920s and reads like a period film in which characters appear and disappear, along with odd animals: an enormous pelican, a snapping turtle “as large as a manhole cover.” The story ends as a couple dances alone in a mysterious enclosure where, under the music, “Bijou could pick out chilling noises, so secret that they could barely be noticed: of flesh ripped from bone, claws scratching madly at wood, the clink of a cigarette lighter.” The lurking horror isn’t explained, it’s simply there.

A new story, “Wilderness,” ratchets up the weird. Instead of characters disappearing and reappearing, they are chopped to bits or devoured and then return to life as themselves or as the animal that did them in. Hansen tells the story adroitly, as he does all his stories; however, this one is extreme enough to feel as though it has been dropped into the book from another universe.

Stories in unlinked collections, however different they are, do play off each other, and there is a tonal jar in She Loves Me Not when a science fiction story like “Wilderness” is read alongside one about simple human emotion like “The Sparrow.” Narrated by a boy whose mother has been killed while taking a flying lesson that was a birthday gift from the boy’s father, “The Sparrow” ends with a moving epiphany as the boy and his father watch a trapped bird escape.

I found most appealing the stories in which Hansen imbeds his characters in a finely drawn milieu and leaves them trapped there, like the retired judge in “Red-Letter Days,” writing a diary that records ordinary life in the erosion of time: “Early Mass and then put in an hour mixing up flapjack batter at the Men’s Club pancake breakfast. Heard Wilma has Alzheimer’s. Earl Yonnert having thyroid out. Whole town getting old. Went out to the links at noon.” As to what it all means, the reader, like the judge, must make her own conclusions.

She Loves Me Not raises the question of how varied a collection of stories can be without giving an impression of being a repository for all the short pieces the author has on hand. A few of the stories, like “My Kid’s Dog” and “She Loves Me Not,” are little more than comic anecdotes, briskly told but dustily familiar. However, the stronger stories and Hansen’s beautiful, supple prose are excellent reasons to go for this collection.

Kate Blackwell’s collection of stories, You Won’t Remember This, was published in 2007 by Southern Methodist University Press. She lives in Washington, D.C., and in Neavitt, Md.


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