A Common Person and Other Stories, by R. M. Kinder (2021)

Kinder’s edgy title story is about a 76-year old woman, Maggie, who posts on Facebook that “maybe someone will shoot him before he takes office”—meaning Trump, of course, in 2016. Immediately, Maggie thinks better of the post and deletes it, but it seems nothing ever truly disappears from the amorphous Internet. Sure enough, men in suits come calling, and Maggie is detained overnight.

The episode is quietly terrifying but the government people are all polite and Maggie is released in the morning. The story might end there as a cautionary tale against the intrusive state, but it seems that the polite government people have seized Maggie’s guns. Because she didn’t really do anything subversive, she demands them back, beginning a struggle that might take the rest of her life.

Maggie is clearly a bit daft—but common, no question. And maybe normal in these Kafkaesque  times, in which a visit from the FBI seems rather like having your credit card denied or being threatened by a bill collector. Just part of everyday life.

Common does seem the same as normal in “Everyday Sky,” in which a lonely immigrant boy, Milosh, befriends a lonely hound dog. Not an abused dog, just a neglected one, rather like Milosh himself. Kinder isn’t afraid of happy endings, though Milosh has to work pretty hard for his. Kinder likes dogs, and “Brute” is really a reprise of “Everyday Sky” that also ends happily, though the protagonist is a complicated fellow with an elaborate scheme to rescue his own unwanted dog. A word about Kinder’s dogs, which must appear in at least half of these stories: they are characters, just as dogs are kind of like people in real life.

A COMMON PERSON is real life, that’s the thing. Real people live in her Missouri neighborhoods, which aren’t fancy or affluent but not poor or deprived, either. The houses were built a while ago and have had more than one set of occupants. Families are not exactly nuclear but take a wobbly aim in that direction. It’s the American Dream with some subtractions, but hanging on.

If people come to resemble their names, as Faulkner said, then maybe another common denominator of Kinder’s stories is kindness. There’s cruelty here, as shown by the boyfriend of  a girl who needs an abortion, in “Tradition.” But the girl’s sweetness and acknowledgement of reality—the kindness she shows her worthless boyfriend, the kindness of everyone besides the boyfriend—leaves the reader thinking the girl will be all right.

The saddest of Kinder’s stories may be “The Stuff of Ballads,” about a woman who’s hopelessly in love with an itinerant banjo player. He loves her, too, but not as much as his life on the road. Other lovers enter the picture, move on, and the woman loses some of her style, moves on herself, conquers alcoholism and even cancer. But, as Kinder puts it: “Like it or not, she was wholesome and honest and true.” She finds a qualified happiness in late life. It’s a happy ending shot through with regrets—but happy enough, given the kindness and good wishes of everyone around her. What a common person, being reasonable, might reasonably expect.

A COMMON PERSON is the 13th Richard Sullivan Prize winner for short fiction. The series began in 1996 and is published by the University of Notre Dame. The award is more rigorous than some of its kind in that writers must have published at least one other collection of stories in order to qualify. A COMMON PERSON is Kinder’s third collection; she’s also published two novels, AN ABSOLUTE GENTLEMAN and THE UNIVERSE PLAYING STRINGS.

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