The characters in Nick Healy's collection--winner of the Many Voices Project--endure their lives the way Minnestoans endure winter.
A St. Paul native, Nick Healy now lives in Mankato. Reading the 10 short stories in "It Takes You Over," his first book, you will conclude that he loves Minnesota and understands its people.
The stories take place in the Twin Cities and Rochester, at a cabin near Aitkin, up on Lake Bemidji and elsewhere. Healy refers in passing to the College of St. Benedict, Thief River Falls, St. Paul's Como Park, Mancini's Char House and Sweeney's tavern, among many other places. In a nod to Duluth's landmark tower, he names a frosty though elegant GOP legislator from that city Elizabeth Enger.
Now consider this description of a late autumn storm approaching Nicollet in south-central Minnesota. "Not so far west, clouds had coiled themselves into something fierce, and winds drove rainfall against farmhouses and barns and livestock in the pasture. Cold air whooshed earthward, and the season seemed to change in a lone mighty gust." Healy's characters endure their lives the way stolid Minnesotans endure winter. Near the end of a story when an insight illuminates some aspect of their lives, his characters grow wiser for their struggles.
In "Close Relations," for instance, a woman takes her grandson and his mother to a Woodbury cemetery. In "Squirt," a college student hides a smoking habit from the rambunctious 9-year-old he looks after. Nothing out of the ordinary here, except that the author locates in daily events a magic that transforms lives.
Despite the insults Lorraine endures in "Close Relations" -- including a selfish daughter's whims and a grandson's repeatedly calling her stupid, and worse -- she persists in honoring the newborn sister she never knew, a baby labeled a "monstrosity" on her death certificate in 1955. By the story's conclusion, Lorraine's capricious daughter learns something about family loyalty from her mother's example. So, too, in "Squirt" do the child and uncle better understand each other after a spat.
In "Joyless Men," moreover, two sad neighbors view life differently when the aging Pete Johnson is arrested for unsavory behavior in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood. In the beautifully rendered "Not Funny," a young woman tries to subdue the nagging feeling that after 9/11 the world has changed.
Because of the author's facility with irony, understatement, repetition and other literary tools, his occasional missteps become noticeable. Whereas in the many good stories, Healy deftly conceals his craft, in "Lives of Great Northerners" the shifting point of view calls attention to itself.
This and a very few other shortcomings point out how easily his fine stories seduce us. There is nothing simple in what Healy has accomplished here. Like the best writers, he only makes storytelling look easy.
Short-story writer Anthony Bukoski lives in Superior, Wis. His work has been featured on National Public Radio's "Selected Shorts" and Wisconsin Public Radio's "Chapter a Day."