Book Review

David Jauss was born in Minnesota and his latest collection, Nice People: New & Selected Stories II, turns inside out the stereotype of the “nice” Minnesotan. Many of the stories are set in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and even the ones elsewhere (particularly Little Rock where Jauss now lives) retain the sense of ostensibly pleasant, generic America. Jauss ruthlessly exposes the overt and covert cruelty that otherwise decent people commit for emotional self-preservation. These thirteen remarkable stories deftly capture the chilled emotional range that plagues Jauss’s decidedly un-nice characters.

The Minnesota snows of David Jauss’s youth feature prominently in the collection, creating a liminal state in a character’s psychological development. The opening title story begins with a line that sounds as if it could be spoken by Jauss himself: “Where I’m from, stories often begin with snow and sometimes they end with snow, too. This story is no exception.” In this particular story there are, in fact, four snowstorms: three in the story of the narrator’s ill-fated affair with his law partner, Sarah, and one recounted by Sarah’s husband about a disturbing incident from his preteen years. In all cases, the snow interrupts the flow of the day-to-day. Only during a snowstorm, it seems, would an affair begin or friendships implode or a boy confront the dark reality of his own impulses. Jauss uses these storms to maximum narrative advantage, both to provide a pivot point in a character’s arc but also to capture the moment of clarity that comes with the return to warm comfort after being in the storm. His descriptions of snow are particularly lovely passages, such as this one from the closing story, “Firelight”: “Here and there thin swirls of snow blew into the air like risen ghosts, and sunlight sparked on the drifts, the snow glinting like splintered glass.” Or in “Blizzards,” in which a young man seeks solace after his fiancée’s death: “Somehow I found the violence of the storm more comforting than the consoling words I’d been hearing for months from my parents, friends, and relatives.”

Jauss’s characters frequently fail to accept comfort and even more frequently are locked inside their own emotional ice. That’s not to say that the characters don’t feel. There is a difference, of course, between an inability to feel and a failure to express those feelings. Jauss’s characters frequently take such emotional reserve one step further, to a place in which they say or do hurtful things to those they love in direct contradiction to their internal feelings of love. The most dramatic example of this is in the novella-length story that anchors the center of the collection, “Last Rites.” Here, a university professor, Andrew, engages in emotional manipulation of a blind student he has taken as a lover:

He had always preferred making his lovers hate him, so they wouldn’t be hurt when he left them. It was odd: he was cruel to them because he didn’t want to hurt them. And because he wanted to love them: for some reason, he could never love them unless he could feel sorry for them.

Like so many of the un-nice people in the collection, Andrew is cruel in an attempt to soothe long-buried emotional wounds.

The stories are rife with death and trauma: lost children, betrayed spouses, murder, an accidental drowning, and a car crash, to name a few. The tragedy, though, comes not from these original horrors, but from the characters’ inability to heal, their refusal to forgive, and their need to spread emotional wreckage to those who love them best. They can only watch in guilt and shame as they lay waste to their relationships in an effort to save themselves. In “Trespassing,” Richard reopens his wife’s barely healed wound from the loss of their teenaged son, reminding her of what a beautiful life had been stolen:

Somehow, this thought made him feel calm, even happy. He knew this happiness wouldn’t last, that he would soon be filled with shame and sorrow, because he was about to steal something from her that he could never give back. He accepted in advance this anguish, though he knew it would torture him until the day he died and, possibly, forever after…. And even though Ellen began to sob, he went on telling her what it felt like to be young, in love, and still alive.

Jauss manages to find the emotional gray zone between the undeniable acts of cruelty so many of his characters commit and the self-loathing that drives them to behave so. We readers cannot only understand how these moments might come to pass, we can even empathize and see in these characters’ failings reflections of the many times we have failed to voice the love we have felt and instead lashed out or hidden from the truth. And even when the characters can’t forgive themselves, or their family and friends turn away in hurt or shame, Jauss requires that we bear witness to their, and our own, flawed humanity.

About the Reviewer

Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s stories, essays and reviews have appeared in the Massachusetts Review, Greensboro Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Poets & Writers and Colorado Review. She has received artist residencies from the Ucross Foundation, the Jentel Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Ms. Kelly is the Book Review Editor for fiction and nonfiction titles at Colorado Review.