(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In NEBRASKA, deceptively simple, compressed language is used by a master wordsmith to portray both the bizarre and the down-to-earth. A psychic troubled by the long-forgotten tragedy in her house’s past; the apparent malevolence of the Blizzard of 1888, which came out of a mild winter’s day to destroy the lives and dreams of many Nebraskans; a hit man stalked by a hopeful successor; a would-be writer disturbed by his descent into suburban futility; a retired lawyer who has found that the golf course, and his passion for the game, transcend the reality of aging--each jewel-like portrait compels the reader onward.

Ron Hansen, whose first novel, DESPERADOES, was acclaimed as “true American poetry,” continues to dazzle his audience with his latest effort. At once disturbing and reassuring, the tales in NEBRASKA elicit an almost visceral sense of recognition--despite, or perhaps even because of, occasional surreal touches, such as a mysterious scaly green creature that is intent upon destroying a farm family’s livestock. In the title story, rural Nebraska’s everytown is brought to life, from Main Street and the tracks of the Union Pacific to the “one crisp, white Protestant church with a steeple” and the sound of the wind rushing through the wheat fields. Hansen’s language, with its resonances and precision, creates a world not easily forgotten.

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Hansen is a consummate stylist, an author fully in control of the elements of effective writing. He is particularly strong in his physical descriptions of place, as he demonstrates in his early novels such as Desperadoes: A Novel (1979) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983).

His similes and metaphors are striking and memorable. He refers to the air as being as crisp as Oxydol and describes the town’s water tower as being “belittled” by the sloppy tattoo of one year’s senior class at the high school. He sees a heavy snow “partitioning” the landscape. The town’s houses are very similar, each a “cousin” to the next. The area’s fruit trees are planted so close together that they cannot sway without “knitting.” Other trees, stripped of their leaves in winter, raise their gray limbs in “alleluia.”

Hansen captures compellingly the isolation of small prairie towns and the insularity that is a consequence of this isolation. In the small town about which he writes, everyone, according to Hansen, is famous in the sense that everyone is known. The Kiwanis Club meets every Tuesday night and resolves petty sins, then empties the gumball machines and deploys the proceeds for the upkeep of the local playground. At the Home Restaurant, old people eat pot roast and gravy followed by lemon meringue pie. Everything is ordinary, everything middle of the road.

The Union Pacific trains, the town’s one link with the outside world, do not stop regularly in the town. When they do stop, it is not to take on or disgorge passengers but merely to put on the siding a car containing the supplies the town needs for its sustenance.

Hansen captures fully the utter sameness of every day in the kind of small town about which he writes. The people who live there are as flat as the surrounding prairie. They dare not risk having extravagant emotions. They are solid, rock-of-Gibralter types, good citizens ready to help their neighbors when the need arises but not out to change society in any significant way.