January 2004

Matt Williamson

fiction

You are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett

If books were scored like platform dives -- and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be -- this fine collection of short stories would get huge numbers for its degree of difficulty. With impressive self-assurance, Haslett tackles one notoriously awkward subject after another, usually with exhilarating success. He writes thoughtfully and respectfully about suicide. He writes sensitively and intelligently about sex. He moves fluidly between British and American voices. His narrators -- whether they be middle-aged schizophrenics or horny teenage boys -- are three-dimensional and uniformly believable. Where the hell did this guy come from?

Whatever Haslett happens to be writing about, you’re likely to find yourself sighing, “There -- someone finally got it right.” His gay characters -- complex, self-aware, human -- are particularly refreshing, and together provide an urgently needed respite from the crass, puerile sensationalism that’s lately come to dominate Queer Lit. (Suffice it to say that not all Bookslut contributors are enamored of the work of JT Leroy.) Haslett’s treatment of mental illness is also remarkable; he writes about the manic and the delusional in ways that preserve and honor their unique identities -- their selves -- while poignantly revealing the ways their insanity has wounded and limited them.

Stranger’s missteps are few and far between, and are usually followed by highlights. If “My Father’s Business” occasionally reads like David Foster Wallace lite, it also features two of the book’s most arresting and memorable passages (one character’s reminiscence about a childhood neighbor and her lemonade stand was a particular favorite of mine). If “Devotion” and “War’s End” are at times too self-consciously literary, they also show off their author’s enviable talent for physical description. Haslett’s first novel, I expect, will be something really spectacular.

At his best, Haslett is as good as any American writer of his generation. The dazzling “Notes to My Biographer” is the single most exciting story I read in 2003: hilariously funny, devastatingly sad, honest, humane, and written in a fresh, unpretentious and instantly engaging voice. This story alone is well worth the price of the book: it’s just that good. But others are magnificent as well. While I disliked the clipped ending of “The Good Doctor” -- the story feels half-finished to me -- it has more moments of insight, sadness, and terror than most full-length novels. “The Beginnings of Grief” is powerful not in spite of but because of its refusal to sentimentalize. And “The Volunteer” is simply gut-ripping – a story that will remind you, in wonderful and terrible ways, of what it felt like to be sixteen years old.

What more can I say about this book? If I had the money, friend, I’d buy you a copy myself. But I don’t – so I’ll just hold up this card reading “9.95,” and hope that you’ll do the right thing. You Are Not a Stranger Here is not to be missed.

You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett
Bantam Books
ISBN: 0385720726
240 pages