One of the finest photographers in the United States, Larry Kanfer, confines his picture-taking to Central Illinois. He works out of Champaign, two or three miles from where Jean Thompson lives and works. Kanfer’s landscapes capture the bigness and the loneliness of the prairie as its stark geometries stretch out toward the thin, barely perceptible line that separates land from sky. He preserves the nuances of every cloud and shadow, the simple dignity of every arrow-straight road and sentinel silo. His photographs project subtle messages. Although Kanfer’s pictures seldom have people in them, one can easily surmise how such a landscape might affect anyone who lives in it.
Jean Thompson often does with words what Larry Kanfer does so strikingly with film. She creates vivid landscapes in such stories as “The Amish,” but then she goes one step further: She populates her wordscapes with the middle Americans who live there. Even when she sets her stories on the Oregon coast, as she does in “All Shall Love Me and Despair,” or California, as she does in “Antarctica,” the people in them seem like middle Americans, Midwesterners who carry the Midwest with them like cumbersome backpacks when they land in other places.
In “The Little Heart,” Pete, a twenty-six-year-old microbiology student, a hunk who accompanies the accomplished forty-four-year-old sculptor, Benny, on a trip from Illinois or Missouri to New Orleans, makes a statement that is at the heart of much of Thompson’s writing: “Isn’t it weird how the worst times make the best stories.” As in the title of this collection, Who Do You Love, the words are not followed by a question mark.
The fifteen stories in Who Do You Love, one of five finalists for the 1999 National Book Award in fiction, are tales about people’s bad times, about people who have been drawn and quartered emotionally. Their lives are in tatters, but usually they go on living. When the tedium of their daily existence overwhelms them, they pick a fight or sell a house or take a trip or, like Scout, who loved the “tidy way the needle slipped beneath the skin, took its discrete bite,” get a drug fix.
Thompson focuses on many situations that make the evening news or provide fodder for radio’s endless talk shows—a father’s physical and sexual abuse, child snatching, post- traumatic stress in a Vietnam War veteran, drug addiction, the furtive murder of a nagging spouse, the problems of aging, facing up to life in a retirement community or nursing home.
Thompson, quite validly, is frequently compared with Raymond Carver (1938-1988), whose overall focus resembles hers. One can, however, look further back to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) for an equally accurate comparison. Anderson (1876-1941) shocked America’s post-World War I reading public by revealing what goes on within the quiet houses on peaceful streets in ordinary towns in Ohio. Jean Thompson’s stories will not shock an American public in a new millennium, because in the intervening years many of that public’s sensibilities have been anesthetized. Very little shocks Americans of the early twenty-first century. They have heard it all. They have seen it on television.
To a large extent, this insensibility is what Jean Thompson’s stories convey. Her protagonists bungle through their days, one foot ahead of the other, as they inch across the prairie toward the thin line between earth and sky, between life and death. Their expectations are not high. If they can capture hours—even minutes or seconds—of pleasure, as Scout is able to with his needle or as Benny does with her casual companion, Pete, they grab those hours and run with them, soon to fall exhausted by the wayside, like Scout fatally adrift on a stolen boat or Benny slouching behind a fish tank in the New Orleans Aquarium.
Many of the stories in this collection focus on denial, an American way of coping with things that cause discomfort: Pretend they are not there and they will cease to exist. In “Antarctica,” Evie uses denial to convince her aging grandmother that she is not at death’s door. More significant, however, is that Evie is so completely in denial about the physical and sexual abuse her father visited upon her and her younger sister, Mary Anne, when they were children, that she has erased these events from her consciousness. Their horrors resurface when she goes to visit her sister in Killdeer, Montana. The very name of the town suggests the slaughter of the innocent....
(The entire section is 1855 words.)