It's fully fitting that Lori Ostlund's debut collection of short stories, "The Bigness of the World," has won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Although none of her stories is set in the American South -- they take place in Minnesota, New Mexico and Malaysia, all places the Minnesota native has lived in or visited -- they bring to mind the work of O'Connor and other Southern Gothic writers such as William Faulkner, Truman Capote and Carson McCullers. Grotesque characters and disturbing plot twists are commonplace, and thus the rare revelatory moments of beauty and sanity stand out like shells on a litter-fouled beach.
The heart is a lonely and bitter hunter in most of Ostlund's stories. Several feature gay or lesbian characters, though those words rarely appear in these masterfully muted narratives; homophobia is often a shadowy backdrop, just as racism is in the works of many Southern writers. Lesbian couples in various stages of breakup are common, as are misfit children whose spirits appear to be in various stages of being broken. More than one character is an aging teacher obsessed with grammar or numbers, a love of order that makes sense when his or her chaotic soul is laid bare.
This is depressing stuff, but like O'Connor, Ostlund enables us to step back from everyday life's banalities and see how completely we are estranged from each other -- and connected to each other.
The best story is the title piece. It's about two Minnesota children dismayed when their parents fire their eccentric nanny, Ilsa Maria Lumpkin. When the kids sneak off to visit her, she advises them to visit the ocean someday so they can understand "the bigness of the world": "'My dear Martin and Veronica,' she said in the high, quivery voice that we had been longing for. 'I know it may sound frightening, yet I assure you that there have been times in my life when the bigness of the world was my only consolation.'"
Consolation is nowhere to be found in most of these stories. In "Bed Death," "Nobody Walks to the Mennonites" and "And Down We Went," couples drift apart in relentlessly miserable circumstances. These three handsomely written stories are also somehow atonal, not particularly moving. Far more effective is "Upon Completion of Baldness," a heartbreaker about a precise English teacher who gracefully handles initially homophobic students but falls apart in front of them at the departure of her beloved, a nutty woman who got her head shaved for a horror movie to earn the money to leave her.
Another wrenchingly poignant, darkly funny story, "Dr. Deneau's Punishment," portrays a quirky math teacher in a Minnesota town who is suspended for punishing his students, unruly boys prone to fisticuffs and bullying, by making them hold hands. In truth, the school is punishing him for his homosexuality, something he hasn't fully acknowledged to himself.
Ostlund's stories are so freakishly focused and darkly atmospheric that you may find yourself especially noticing your fellow human animals' oddities in the days after you read them, then stepping back for perspective. Ostlund could ask for no better indicator of this collection's success.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.