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

Great British Bake Off
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.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea