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

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The Independent Culture
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.