BOOK REVIEW / Excellent putter under pressure: Anthony Quinn on Ron Hansen, who puts Nebraska on the map and off the beaten track: Nebraska - Ron Hansen: Vintage, pounds 5.99

THE ELEVEN STORIES which make up this collection are so disparate in tone and time and subject that one despairs of locating any kind of unity. They stretch from the era of late 19th-century pioneers to the present, encompassing the trials of insurance salesmen, the worries of a farmer's wife, the fatigue of a contract killer. What on earth do they have in common? Broadly speaking, America is what, and the flat, wide plains of Nebraska in particular, celebrated in the closing title story as 'places of ownership and a hard kind of happiness', where people have spent lifetimes protecting themselves against something, usually fate, or just the weather.

While putting Nebraska on the map, Ron Hansen operates way off the beaten track. 'Playland' seems to play out a sweetly conventional cocktails-and-crooners romance, but instead transforms its post-war setting, an amusement park, into a vaguely sinister fugue. Love-sick GI Gordon becomes suspicious and irritable on the arrival of his girlfriend's cousin, Frankie, a smooth Forties cad with 'a moustache like William Powell's' and eye for the ladies; the piqued young corporal makes an effort to impress his girl and somehow winds up on the wrong end of a snapping turtle. Here, like some Fitzgerald jazz-age story, details surface as if from a dream. The tale swoons to a close, a sliver of personal history has flickered and vanished.

Much more disquieting is 'Sleepless', in which a middle-aged mother with second sight is contacted by the previous tenant of her house, a boy who may have murdered his ailing mother. The psychic gets her signals crossed (remember The Eyes of Laura Mars?) and discovers that her own life might be under threat. A feeling of unease pulls at the corners of this collection, though it's not always easy to recognise where that feeling comes from. 'Can I Just Sit Here for a While?' is straight from the Carver heartland of aspirant salesmen and stalled ambitions, and narrows into a set-piece night out for three men on the threshold of middle-age, 'with scowls in their eyes and grey threads in their hair and gruesome mortgages on their houses, and not one of them yet living up to his full potential'. Tough-guy moodiness turns sour, and one of them ends up in a fight, but it's the small shifts within the trio's relationship (do they like each other at all?) which lend the piece its unsettling spell.

The best stories here are in some way surprising, or mysterious, or thought-struck, and their elliptical approach to narrative suggest a whole novel's worth of material has been pared away. The sense of a life going on, or rather going out, beyond the confines of the story is most poignantly felt in 'Red-Letter Days', the diary of an old-timer who clings to his love of golf as though it were a talisman against death. It's a wonderful impersonation, right down to the record of penny-pinching economies he is driven to practise. A retired lawyer, he is by turns tetchy, melancholic and quietly affectionate, with a nice line in laconic humour: 'Tom Watson's instructions good as always but plays too recklessly. Heard he's a democrat. Shows.' The diary of a senior citizen who enjoys Reader's Digest and feels 'our president is making the right decisions' has no right to be interesting, but you're hooked from the first page. It exerts a hold not merely in the sad domestic detail ('Shoes need polishing. Will do tomorrow or next day') and the private eulogy for a friend who has just died - 'It peeves me that I could not have written down some remarks about how much his friendship meant to me over these past 65 years'. What clinches it is the afterthought: having noted that the deceased was 'honest, hard-working, proud', he gives him the finest salute he knows - 'Excellent putter under pressure'. It's the sort of touch that raises a middling idea to a memorable one, and shows this author to be as adept in the rough as he is on the green.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen