Unclean Jobs, Unmatched Talent

I honestly don’t know why novels get all the attention. They may have size on their side, but the truth is, writing effective short stories takes just as much craft as writing War and Peace. And some story ideas are so potent, so deliciously high-concept that they’re best enjoyed in small, intense bursts.

Here’s an excellent new example: Alissa Nutting’s first book, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (Starcherone Books, $18). Her short stories range in length from two pages to two dozen, but Nutting’s writing is so smart and original, I feel like I got a novel’s worth of ideas and emotions with each serving. Nutting begins with a clever premise—often darkly comic—and fashions stories that are funny, endearing and frequently bittersweet. In “Hellion,” a woman kills her husband, goes to Hell and hooks up with the Devil. Of course, Nutting’s version of Hell features non-alcoholic beer (real beer—as the Devil points out—would dehydrate everyone), and when a man hits on a woman, her breasts squirt an acid-like substance. Suffice to say their romance is awkwardly charming.

“Dinner” features five men and a female narrator, simmering inside a boiling kettle filled with garlic and assorted herbs. Despite being bound and awaiting a grim fate, she tries to connect with the others emotionally.

In “Deliverywoman,” an “independent outer space cargo transporter” rescues her cryogenically frozen mother, with devastating results. A suburban wife replaces her inattentive husband with an erotically charged garden gnome in “Gardener.” In “She-Male,” a transsexual with a taste for Sea Breeze cocktails enjoys a happy life with her boyfriend, a professional bowler, until her past catches up with her.

Some of Nutting’s narrators are innocents, others are perpetrators; some are naïve, some are world-weary, and some have committed homicide. A handful of these stories read like cautionary fairy tales, while others seem steeped in science-fiction tradition. All but three were previously published in literary journals, but these stories belong together. It’s no mistake that the collection was chosen by Ben Marcus (The Age of Wire and String, 1995) for Starcherone’s Innovative Fiction Prize.

Have you ever enjoyed a book so much that when it was over, you felt like you’d broken up with the author? I felt a little like that after reading Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls.

On the bright side, Nutting is young and surely has many more books to write. It’s too early in Nutting’s literary career to pigeonhole her as a short story writer—she’s pursuing her Ph.D. at UNLV, where she’s a recipient of the Schaeffer and Cobain Fellowships—either way, she’s clearly a talent worth watching.

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I just don’t know about How Do You Know (that title is asking for it, right?). The latest dram-com from James L. Brooks starts out frozen solid—all glossy surface, no beating heart—but, over the course of two hours, it thaws, drawing you in, warming you up. It’s not on a par with Broadcast News or As Good As It Gets, but it’s certainly not as bad as Spanglish. So there’s that.