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.