I couldn’t resist: I picked up the book with the steamy makeout scene on the cover. I was wandering the library stacks, exploring the work of Hillsdale College’s next Visiting Writer. As yet, he was a mystery to me, and the “H” section of the fiction shelves only turned up more intrigue.
The listings under “Hansen, Ron” are a hothouse of variety: his creativity blooms in novels, historical fiction, short stories, and essays on the religious life. These works are populated by nuns (“Mariette in Ecstasy”), gangsters (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Richard Ford”), dictators and their relatives (“Hitler’s Niece”), possibly rabid dogs (multiple stories in “Nebraska” and “She Loves Me Not”), and the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Exiles”).
The cover of Ron Hansen’s most recent collection of stories, then, is suggestive of more than a tendency toward the passionate side of life: “She Loves Me Not” is a collection of short stories that runs the range of human experience and emotion, vice and unexpected virtue. It’s an emblem of Hansen’s interest in the excitement of everything, and his stories are vibrant, violent, and brimming with life.
And the dust jacket only made matters more interesting: Ron Hansen is the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, where he teaches literature. He is an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church. Two of his novels have been finalists for the PEN/Faulkner award, and one was a finalist for the National Book Award.
He is a native Nebraskan, and he writes largely from and about his home, but there is far more going on in those silent cornfields than his readers knew.
The table of contents spans thirty years of Hansen’s writing, and the stories fly by, invigorating as a wintry gust of Nebraska wind: “Nebraska,” published in 1989, is a stirring picture of the changelessness of home. “True Romance” injects the evil of the unknown into this already melancholic idyll, and “A Hazard of New Fortunes” uses suffering to inject new hope — somewhat strangely — into a life not-so-well-lived.
The first 30 pages frame the book beautifully: Oscar Wilde, extravagant artiste and aesthete extraordinaire, visits Omaha, Nebraska, and finds that his elaborate poses fall flat before the bewildering — and sobering — straightforwardness of a reporter for the Omaha Daily Herald. Hansen’s Wilde is enchanting and true to the Irish author’s voice, but his loyalties lie with the Midwest.
Hansen’s landscape is never simply a backdrop; it threatens annihilation in “Wickedness,” a story of the fates of rural people in the great blizzard of 1888. One of the survivors of the storm introduces the story — which at times seems little more than a catalogue of deaths — saying, “Weather in Nebraska could be the wickedest thing she ever saw.” And the theme of the forces of nature and fate, the unavoidable and inexplicable voices that determine his characters’ lives, runs through many of Hansen’s stories.
Nature is not the only ominous agent in Hansen’s stories, and certainly not the most disturbing one. Hansen writes of serial killers, unfaithful spouses, and people whose lust for life has died even as they live it. The inexplicable acts of evil that people commit against one another are the real ghosts in Hansen’s stories. One wonders how much Flannery O’Connor Hansen has read (after reading the grotesque and haunting story “Playland,” one strongly suspects that the answer is “plenty”).
But there are always glimpses of grace. Two of the best stories in “She Loves Me Not” are “The Sparrow,” a story about the strength and healing found through grief, and “My Communist,” a delightful story about the stalking of a Polish priest in California: the ending is “a big surprise, belief me!” Hansen cannot resist these moments of humor and hope; he is often hilarious, heart-warming, lyrical, and poignant, especially in the short piece “The Theft,” where a policeman returns to an old lover in a surprising way. In fact, this may be the center of his work: the joy that breaks in and invigorates characters to bear the blows of fate.
At times, though, all these shifts in genre, tone, and style can be bewildering; “Wilderness,” in particular, is a jarring piece of magical realism that swallows up its own meaning in a sort of fairytale involving books that are bottomless holes and members of love triangles who are also monsters to be slain. In his enthusiastic attempts to present the enigma of life in all its variety and vivacity, Hansen’s voice — and particularly his use of dialect — is not always steady.
But Hansen’s work is bold enough to overshadow the occasional misstep. The final piece, “She Loves Me Not,” completes the picture of Hansen’s multifarious Midwest, painting the self-destruction of small lives — and seemingly senseless murders — in Omaha in bright red. This is Hansen at his boldest. There are murders, drugs, love triangles, and longings for affection, validation, and purpose thwarted. Nature is defied and fate is accepted. And at the end, there may even be a resolution: “I slung my arm around my exotic gorgeous dancer and gazed up at our overseers. Waved my farewell. Wishing them peace and happiness. Wishing them such love.”
To prepare for Hansen’s visit on March 27 and 28, readers should start with the short stories here and in “Nebraska.” Hansen’s collection of essays on faith will give readers “A Momentary Stay Against Confusion” and open up discussion about the Catholicism that grounds his work. “Mariette in Ecstasy” is a brave foray into a convent turned upside down by miracles — with all the attendant theological complications. And for some fun and James, track down “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Richard Ford.”
At first glance, readers won’t be able to take in the whole scene that Hansen paints with his letters. But Hansen’s work will inspire questions about nuns, desperadoes, eerie amusement parks, and rabid dogs — and about the pleasure, pain, and prayer that shines through all of his fictional portraits. And that is a start.