Ron Hansen is a versatile writer. His novels range from historical ("Hitler's Niece") to spiritual ("Mariette in Ecstasy") to allegorical ("Atticus") to comedic ("Isn't It Romantic?"). He also writes mysteries ("A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion") and essays ("A Stay Against Confusion"). It's no wonder that his latest work, 19 short stories collected over a 20-year span, is so wildly eclectic and brilliantly crafted.
You will find everything here: grisly crime scenes, surreal landscapes, poetic descriptions of prairie life, macabre attempts to dispose of a husband, a Polish priest's lonely exile. And the voices are as diverse as the genres: a mechanic deciding which of his employees to fire; a teenager musing on her boyfriend's job as an assassin; a reporter covering Oscar Wilde's American tour.
For a thoughtful writer in tune with the spiritual side of things, Hansen is preternaturally gifted in providing his readers with a good scare. While Minnesotans might question whether a man as big as a sofa can truly be criminally dispatched into an ice-fishing hole only to emerge stunned but alive from a neighboring hole, we will still cringe at the violence in the title story. Indeed, at one point while reading the equally grisly "True Romance," I actually yelped and threw the book across the room.
But it's not all black comedy. Seven of the stories are reprinted from Hansen's collection, "Nebraska." In these, he is poetic and rueful, describing autumn in his home state as "orange on the ground and blue overhead" with bare trees "lifted up in alleluia." Winter sees a kid "limping pitifully in the hard plaster of his clothes," and July is "a gray highway and a Ford hay truck spraying by." Hansen is similarly vivid in "Wickedness," a story about the blizzard of 1888, which hit Nebraska so hard and fast that one man "tramped up and down the block more than twenty times and then slept against a lamppost and died," a woman froze to a fence, "her blue eyes still open but cloudily bottled by a half inch of ice," and a classroom of children perished after seeking shelter in a haystack.
Although Hansen's historical re-creations will transport you, and his black humor is worthy of a Coen brothers movie, he is at his best when writing about what Wordsworth called "the still, sad music of humanity," such as the story of a woman caring for her Alzheimer's-inflicted husband ("The Sleepwalker"), or the boy struggling to understand his mother's death ("The Sparrow"). These stories, truthful meditations on the motions of grace in the physical world, are the real gems of the collection.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.