by Dylan Nice
Short Flight/Long Drive Books; 109 p.
Dylan Nice’s Other Kinds, at just over a hundred pages, is a physically tiny book, smaller than a lot of the frail old pulps I keep in collector’s bags. In every other way it’s a big book.
I got it in the first place because I trust Short Flight/Long Drive. Mary Miller’s Big World is one of my grab-it-in-a-fire books. Elizabeth Ellen’s Fast Machine is a big, raw, greatest hits box set of a book that I dip in and out of frequently. I’ve picked up everything they’ve published, and I generally rely on Hobart to keep me up to date on new writers I should give a shit about. So I knew I wanted Nice’s Other Kinds, but I didn’t know anything about it except that, like the other SF/LD books, it was attractive. Pulpy-looking without being annoyingly retro. The cover is a painting of an older woman—think Faye Dunaway in Barfly—smoking a cigarette with an ashtray and cup of coffee in front of her. Sold.
Nice’s stories are sudden, weighted down with a reverence for language, and they’re beautiful little things, something like looking at a Joseph Cornell box or Edward Hopper’s saddest paintings. I wasn’t reading for entertainment. I was reading to make the book belong to me. I read sentences ten or twelve times, taking hours to finish stories. I taught closer “Flat Land” in a beginning fiction class the day after reading it because I wanted my students to feel what I felt. The narrator is in love with a woman named Lily, a decade older than him, who “took pictures which later she’d wash out or brighten so that today already looked like something old and gone.” She’s not in love with him. A fire in his neighborhood forces him to beg her for a place to stay. When they get back to her apartment, she says, “Do I have to explain things to you?” The next morning, waking in the dark, the narrator flees Lily and his quiet Midwestern town, and heads for home in the Alleghenies “because he wanted to be able to tell where [he] stood.” His brother, having never left home, has lived the only way they’ve ever known: “hungry, tired, at work in a desperate way.” A weird, unsettled night with his brother leads him to remember why he always “planned escapes to other lives.” He leaves his brother’s house and drives back across the flat land to where he came from. Nice writes: “Eventually there were no states, there was only sky that never got any closer and me moving through places I could not stay.” The story is fraught with a quiet terror that is hard and deft and intense.
The structure of the book is reminiscent of Hemingway’s In Our Time. It’s split into three parts. Each part begins with an italicized prologue and contains three stories. The characters feel vague and blurry in a good way. The themes of Other Kinds are not far removed from In Our Time either—Nice’s characters are haunted by home in the same way that Nick Adams and Krebs are. His sad boys drift like worried fire. “Flat Land” feels like a sadder “Big Two-Hearted River” for these shitty times. Without all the fishing. Ultimately, Other Kinds is a meditation on home with characters that have nostalgia for home, fear home, and are constantly considering what home even is/means. “I feel loyal to where I’m from,” says the narrator of “We’ll Both Feel Better.” He’s then asked what he wants there. His response: “The ugly things.”
Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son also came to mind. The best of these stories—“Thin Enough to Break,” “Wet Leaves,” “Ice Floe,” “We’ll Both Feel Better,” and “Flat Land”—feel as intimate and well-made as the stories in Johnson’s masterpiece. Unfortunately, this isn’t a book that will get a lot of attention outside of certain circles. Its market is basically people who read HTML Giant and buy books like Big World and Fast Machine. But it’s a powerful, poignant little book, and it deserves a wider audience. So much that works here is nameless. So much that works here leaves you, like Tom in “Ice Floe,” feeling like you’re “standing at the spot where the world [begins] to get round.” Exposed. Your heart open. These are honest stories about a place. These are stories about wherever and whenever and what is not but could be if. These are stories about leaving and staying and winter. I hope you take them, and I hope you carry them with you.