Spoiler alert: the adults in Patricia McNair’s new short stories aren’t all that responsible. The ironic title comes from one of the eighteen excellent stories in her collection. Two children, a brother and a sister, awake to the reality that their guardians, a mother and hapless boyfriend, are gone, and their rusted-out clunker parked in the woods their indefinite home. The story of this abandonment does not have a happy ending, but neither is it tragic, and so fittingly represents the collection’s sensibility and strength. There is tenderness beneath so much of this jagged-edged world’s surface, and a brand of resilience that is less about winning gold medals and more about remaining upright. Take the title story, in which the adolescent narrator says, “It was day but there was dark out the windows, shadows and black places. The woman police turned up the heat. I felt the warm on my face, like Toby’s breath at night, only more, and it smelled dry and like metal, not like Toby, moist, animal.” McNair’s prose here, as throughout the collection, sings not in a lament but more a gospel, a gospel of lives sacred no matter what.
Life is hard like that in these stories. It is hard in ways inherited, and hard in ways self-inflicted, and hard in ways merely unlucky. This adversity manifests itself as a baseline rather than a conclusion, as in “The Truth is Not Much Good,” when the narrator matter-of-factly tells us, “We didn’t have much. Clean underwear, toothbrushes. And now beer, tequila, toothpaste. A plastic bag. My purse.”
“Responsible Adults” is a collection in which each story builds upon the last, not in terms of plot or character but in terms of milieu. It’s a world of cigarette smoke and discarded fast-food wrappers, but also kittens and Lucky Charms, “handmade lives” that always, or almost always keep trying.
Relationships are the ballast in many of these stories. The interactions between mother and daughter, husband and wife, husband and neighbor, teacher and student, driver and hitchhiker tell us, in nuanced portraits, more about the subject than those people that inhabit their spheres. What do our decisions say about who we are? How does our interactions with family, friends and lovers reflect upon our true personas?
The title, “Responsible Adults,” comes from a police officer sorting out the circumstances of the two children, who have managed, day after day after day, to survive on their own, hammered with the realization that ultimately living is up to them, promises of safety or protection a fairytale told to ease that harsh reality.
Ironically, it is the children, in many of these stories, that play a parental role, often forced into positions of premature responsibility. In “My Mother’s Daughter,” the narrator, a child, serves as confidante and adviser to a mother desperately trying to lasso a proper boyfriend. In “Salvage,” the children serve as co-conspirators to a soon-to-be-gone father’s quirky hobby. In “What Girls Want,” the teenaged daughter teaches a bumbling, alcoholic father empathy.
The stories do not operate on a continuum. A story like “A Good Reader,” while it does explore notions of family and caregiving, stands alone as a funny, erotic tale of release during a stressful time. “Maria Concepción” is a magical story of a pastor and a needy immigrant in which the poor ultimately offers as much to the rich as vice versa. In “Regarding Alix,” a teacher finds the outcast more interesting and enlightened than the well-adjusted, and still is unable to influence her fate.
The characters in these uncommonly good stories often understand their reality—and their lousy odds—even as they try to defeat it.
There are so many great titles in this collection, such as “Things You Know But Would Rather Not,” that the table of contents is a harbinger of the quality of the stories to come. McNair, an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago, displays superb craftsmanship, including a finely honed talent for plotting, rhythm, dialogue and characterization, that makes these stories surge with emotion and resonate with each other, a thoughtful examination of lives wasted or faltering, but not yet done.
By Patricia McNair
Cornerstone Press, 200 pages
Donald G. Evans is the author of a novel and story collection, as well as the editor of two anthologies of Chicago literature, most recently “Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry.” He is the Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.