September 12, 2012
Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Little Sinners and Other Stories (University of Nebraska Press) by Karen Brown is a collection of tales set primarily in the supposed domestic bliss of quiet, suburban life. But these tales are anything but mundane and conservative: they reach out into the shadows and chipped sidewalks that surround these cookie cutter lives that fall apart all around us. Death and betrayal, loneliness and desperation, dreams dissolved and love left cold on the doorsteps of our everyday existence—these are the stories we are given.
Secrets are scattered across this collection of stories. Sometimes they are revealed to us at the end of a story, everything finally adding up to a gasp or a sigh. Other times we are told what has happened, many years ago. Take “The Philter,” a story of wealth and privilege that slowly reveals the family secrets, witnessed from a rock atop a hill, naked flesh on a well-lit stage below. What is to be believed? Something is off:
“Miranda cut the cake, one glazed with fruit and giving off a cloying, almost perfumed scent. She served the coffee while Georgie poured the brandy. I sat quietly, accepting the cake, the drink in its crystal snifter. I didn’t know if Sarah and Miranda’s mother was dead, or if she’d run off with a lover. I didn’t wonder why Sarah believed she was buried in the garden. Any of these things could be true, and the possibility of them filled the night with something clandestine. I felt the power of their secret, and I wanted to know it. Sarah stared at me across the table like an unrequited lover. Her cake sat untouched on its plate.”
Sometimes the story unfolds in front of us, and we are pulled into the drama, the history. Do we say something, take a stand, or quietly disappear into the night and forget that anything ever happened? How quickly a gesture of kindness turns into a flight for survival, anything to keep our previously boring lives intact.
Another recurring theme is that of loss, that of leaving—fathers, mothers, anyone of influence who has shaped and bruised our hearts. Take this thoughtful moment from “Passing” where a visit to the old homestead brings up memories of a different time, the passing ghost of a father long gone:
“He left when I was fifteen and Keely twelve, and I can remember only the loss of him that lurked in my mother’s bland look, her absent nod, the hands that dried themselves over and over on the dishtowel, and then the faces of neighbors, pitying, curious, and their food, in white Corning Ware casseroles, that arrived for years because no one knew when to stop. Still, we see these clean dishes stacked on the kitchen counter, and I think our mother must never cook.
In our house his absence was so forcibly felt, it was like an unidentifiable smell that followed you from room to room, and I could not stay there. Keely left soon after, pushed out, snubbed by the loss of him, unable to stand the smell of it that we have come close to naming—a mixture of oranges and freshly cut grass. I have never missed him. I do not remember the sound of his voice. When people ask me about him, I tell them he is dead.”
When you are left with only the echo of the punch, the wreckage that lies about after the damage is done, what does it look like? Many times it still honors the monster, unable, or unwilling, to move on. The story has been told now—it cannot be untold.
Quite often, the female voices that carry these stories contemplate the mistakes they have made, or the possibilities of a life elsewhere, a way out of a bad situation. Take this from “Leaf House,” as Martha thinks about her husband, who is still married to her, but no longer loves her:
“Martha enjoyed the flow of the women in and out of houses, the children’s sounds of play, the absence of husbands and their heavy footfalls, demanding things in kitchens. Each day was tirelessly similar, and in their sameness, Martha forgot her dissolving marriage.”
How easy it is to fall into a pattern, to become roommates, your focus shifted to caring for children, the romance and passion fading as the days unfold one after another. Sometimes the blame is hard to find:
“Michael was still the boy in the silver MG, his eyes the same, with the same lost look, and she would still give him anything, but somehow he could not remember what it was he ever wanted from her.”
We fall into love, so why wouldn’t there be that lack of control when things are over? Suddenly the walls are gone, the floor disappears, and nothing is sturdy any longer, nothing remains to hold you up and keep you safe from the elements.
But things are not always dark and dreary in this collection of stories. Sometimes there is pleasure in the simplest things, the world that remains, the barking of a neighbor’s dog, the laughter of children, the chirping of crickets as the sun sets—secret paths head off into the woods, places where we can relax and absorb the beauty of nature and our lives:
“We see the trees fan out like a blaze, the pond coated with ice. We watch the fog settle among the bare, black branches, and the snow fall, its obscuring blanket. We long for the sun in our hair, the children’s voices, high and happy. Each passing day, filled with the work of our lives, is its own solace.”
The work of Karen Brown might be described as suburban noir, because it takes the expected situations, the same old rituals of everyday life and shows us the seedy underbelly, the darker moments, the ways we fail and fall down. In Little Sinners we see how easy it is to make the wrong choices, the ones that tear our lives apart and leave us asking, “What might have been?” With an ear for life and history, an eye for the little things we take for granted every day, and a heart full of longing for our hopes and desires, she gives us a powerful collection of stories that will stay with us long after the dinner bell has rung and the children are sound asleep.