I’m downright crotchety these days, and that’s why Judy Budnitz’s second collection of short stories impresses me so much. There is so much to hate about this book, but I just can’t do it. Budnitz explores the now-cliché theme of ugly Americans, delights in unreliable, unlikable, and unusual narrators (a group that becomes a single person; a racist child; a man reading a diary), and favors turn-on-a-dime surprises. It sounds like standard-issue, MFA-program preening, right down to the incoherent Dave Eggers blurb on the back cover, but stick with me.
If Judy Budnitz writes like anyone else, she is an absurd Pinckney Benedict, a minimalist storyteller who manages to create entire worlds with the shortest of sentences. There are no adjectives here, no lengthy descriptions. The action can change dramatically in just a sentence. Budnitz’s reader has to work hard to fully engage in the scene and keep up with the action. As a result, the payoff is deeply affecting, even after you realize that every story’s ending will try to manipulate you, and that every story’s formula is essentially the same.
The book borrows its title from a character’s wish in “Where We Come From,” a story that easily spans many years as a lonely woman tries to give birth over the United States border and give her child American citizenship. Her attempts are thwarted, so the baby just stays put inside her--after ten months, fourteen months, two years—as she tries again and again.
Other stories begin with similarly odd premises: a woman undergoes a mammogram for her mother, and suddenly shares her cancer; a white woman gives birth to an onyx-black baby, estranging her husband and baffling her doctors; and an island of women wait for their fathers to return. None of these stories comes across as weird for weird’s sake. Budnitz’s matter-of-fact delivery makes it easy not only to believe the story, but also to immerse fully into it. Even the most predictable of the stories, “Immersion,” as a child connects her mother’s warnings about big cities and black people with her cousin’s life-threatening illness, is satisfying in its execution. The ending is obvious, in that peeking-through-your-fingers sort of way.
Budnitz’s genius comes through in her most heavy-handed stories. What would be merely topical statements in the hands of someone else become dreamy fairy tales for grown-ups, enhanced, but not driven, by political undertones. In “Preparedness,” a goofy, redneck president stages an emergency drill, but no one shows up. Rather than cower in the camera-outfitted tunnels of what used to be the subways, the people have chosen to tell off their bosses, make out with strangers, or simply play checkers with longtime partners. As the president tries to ratchet up feelings of fear by aiming missiles at his own country, the people simply grow more addicted to the excitement of living their supposedly last moments. The story transcends typical Orwellian warnings about government or syrupy reminders to live every day as if it were the last and turns them into a human experience that is both universal, and not.
Each story comes back to privilege and want, comfort with the familiar and revulsion at the foreign, and that stereotype of Americans as selfish, desperate for power, and hopelessly ignorant. Like many younger writers—Benjamin Kunkel particularly comes to mind--Budnitz has plenty to say about who we are and where we are going. But the strength of this collection lies in her ability to know when she has said enough.