(Bloomsbury, May 2014)
The landscape of this book is the wide open spaces of Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. Throughout, there is the pervasive desire to drink to forget, to have sex with the wrong people, to hit the road and figure out later where to stop for the night. These characters are aging, regretting actions both taken and not…in Funny Once, their flawed humanity is made beautiful, perfectly observed by one of America’s best short story writers.
“Nelson’s run as one of the finest contemporary short story writers takes an exhilarating leap forward with her outrageously superb seventh collection. Her particular wizardry in the short form is found in her exceptional melding of pristine prose with a rampaging imagination and a comic’s perfect timing. Nelson is scandalously funny, her characters are royally screwed up and wildly inept, and their dire predicaments bust down the doors on the most painful of life’s cruel jokes, from betrayal to divorce, addiction, and old age.…Each of Nelson’s magnetizing stories generates atomic vibrancy and achieves the psychic mass of a novel.”
—Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
“Graced with credible characters whose friendships, marriages, progeny, and divorces feel familiar and lived in, Nelson’s supple stories have appeared in prestigious magazines and prize anthologies for two decades. This seventh short story collection (her tenth book of fiction) will delight longtime fans while likely propelling new readers to explore her earlier work. Even readers who have already encountered some of these newer stories in the pages of The New Yorker will find themselves fully engaged once again from the tumbling out of the first sentence on the first page. The narratives are driven by characters whose crises and moments of insight take the reader by surprise, but Nelson herself is completely in control of her complex tales, in which infidelities are exposed or never quite happen and old friends surprise one another with new revelations that take 20 pages to unfold. Even the peripheral characters, such as the acerbic, misplaced writing instructor for an adult education class in Kansas in the novella-length closing story, “Three Wishes,” are presented as questions that might be answered in stories still to come. VERDICT Nelson is one of the leading practitioners of the contemporary short story, and her new collection will be welcomed.”
—Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
“Nelson’s stories are frequently anthologized, and for good reason: they feature memorable, albeit often desperately unhappy, characters; evocative Southwestern settings; and a refreshing frankness about the emptiness of modern life. She starts her fifth collection (after Female Trouble) at the peak of her game, with the haunting “Literally,” in which a widower struggles to protect his children (and their maid) from life’s harsh realities.”
“In her immersive new collection of nine stories and a novella, Nelson (Bound, 2010, etc.), a much lauded novelist and short story writer, introduces not-always-happy or well-behaved protagonists who make questionable choices.
Ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends, stepchildren from dead marriages and former in-laws crop up in the present, affecting the status quo. In “Soldier’s Joy,” a woman who married her college professor goes home years later to help her injured father and rediscovers the attraction of an old boyfriend, whose rejection of her in the past is about to haunt her anew. “iff”—a rich example of Nelson’s ability to conjure a fully peopled scenario in only 20 pages—reveals the poignantly interdependent relationship between a divorced woman and her ex-mother-in-law. Lovey in “First Husband” comes to the aid of her needy former stepdaughter—tending her children, accepting her manipulation—while considering different kinds of married love. These stories are set in scattered cities—Albuquerque, Houston, Telluride, Chicago—and focus on everyday families dealing with long-resonant emotions. While irony pervades many of them, a streak of despair runs through several, and suicide is touched on softly but repeatedly: in “iff”; in “The Village,” whose central character, Darcy, finds herself paying tribute to her father’s mistress, who rescued her once; and in “Winter in Yalta,” where a 30-year friendship unravels during a reunion weekend in New York. Nelson’s central characters can sometimes seem interchangeable: Mostly they are not-so-young women bruised by love, by leaving or being left, whether through death, divorce or dementia. But others—like Phoebe, the badly behaved woman of the title story, whose hair catches fire—are uniquely memorable.
Distinctive, quirky stories that deftly capture some of life’s messiness.”
““You know,” the woman says, “you ought to have to renew your license to live. Some people are no longer qualified. Some people wouldn’t pass the test.” Commitment to living is a tenuous thing in Funny Once, Antonya Nelson’s collection of nine beautifully observed short stories and a novella. Suicide is a recurring theme; a small dog is named Sylvia Plath. Nelson’s characters are a restless lot, their commitments to each other conditional. Marriage is a serial condition, boredom a suitable excuse for moving on. But they’re aspirational in their way. Drunk one evening, the mother of a faraway married son wishes he’d get his old girlfriend pregnant so she could have a grandchild. “She wanted another chance at loving somebody.” For that, a person might stick around.”
—The Boston Globe
“Antonya Nelson has written her share of sad tales. Her previous collections and novels, such as Nothing Right and Bound, have featured loss, lies and infidelity, and Nelson’s newest collection is another examination of unhappy folk and their desperate acts. Some of these stem from pride, like the woman who tells another person’s rock-bottom tales at her AA meetings in “Chapter Two”; others from loneliness, like the character in “Soldier’s Joy” who is unsatisfied with both her old husband and her new affair. Even though failed ambitions and substance abuse seem to permeate Funny Once, Nelson’s great talent in constructing each story in its own unique world prevents them from blending together.
“And there is humor. These ten stories feature an array of funny moments amid the bleak ones. Whether it’s her honest account of the chin-ups, push-ups and “sometimes throw-ups” that accompany a character’s old age, or a car dubbed the “Penis Mobile,” Nelson makes sure that we see the silliness alongside the strife, and the heart withing the hardships endured.”
—TimeOut New York, FOUR STARS
“In her rewarding new collection, Funny Once (Bloomsbury), Antonya Nelson expertly dissects the lives of her troubled midwestern and mountain-time characters–frantic teens, finicky fathers, abandoned wives, know-it-all neighbors, sorrowful siblings, festering friendships–dosing their domestic dramas and existential hurts with splendid shots of unexpected whimsy, familiar pleasures, and incurable love.”
“Antonya Nelson’s seventh collection delivers 10 stories rich with her signature wit and style…Nelson’s incisive gaze strips the domestic of its veil of normalcy and leaves her characters exposed—as much for our empathy as for our judgment. At the heart of each of these stories are women—capricious, careful, inquisitive, and oblivious—who defy easy assessment, and whom Nelson refuses to reduce to types Readers weary of the women portrayed by literary fiction’s good ol’ boys will rejoice in Nelson’s astute depiction of the uncomfortable marriage between the sides we show and those we hide. Wondering where the short story is headed now that Alice Munro has her Nobel? Rest assured: there’s a new captain at the helm.”
– BUST Magazine (5 out of 5 boobs)
“[These stories] reflect the times in which we live and move us to reflect on our own lives, on our relationships, our wounds, what we use to get through our days. In her stories we encounter the complex lives of others and perhaps grow in our empathy and understanding.”
– The Wichita Eagle
“Antonya Nelson proves a shrewd sounding board for the absurdities of life in Funny Once, a series of short stories…Nelson weaves surprises and epiphanies in spaces that usually seem mundane, ordinary and depressingly, hysterically human.. A master of the domestic drama, Nelson tailors the stories in Funny Once from the broad human tapestries of marriage, divorce, infidelity, love, loss, adolescence, aging and death. She creates touching, carefully crafted dioramas of the familiar neighborhoods, living rooms and bedrooms of Houston and the expansive endlessness of other places, including Colorado and Kansas…The mark of a good storyteller is the ability to make every plot fresh and engaging, which Nelson does as masterfully as a beauty shop gossip, arousing my undivided attention to these recurring, timeless themes…The book’s title, Funny Once, is taken from a short story of the same name featuring a chronically unhappy woman, Phoebe, whose therapist advises her to abstain from drinking. In a moment of tortured sobriety, Phoebe hears an intoxicated friend repeat a witty but well-worn saying. Phoebe promises herself that when she does return to drinking — and she plans to, sooner rather than later — she will remember: It’s only funny once. And therein lies the overarching message. We’re expected to laugh at our shortcomings at some point in the near or extended future, and it is one of life’s absurdities to live in too much misbegotten mirth. But betrayal, infidelity, loss and loneliness are only as funny as the awkward angle at which one hits a funny bone, all nerve-endings and numbness. It’s an angle that Nelson targets artfully and methodically — and hits dead-on.”
– The Houston Chronicle
“In the title story in Antonya Nelson’s new collection of dark but dead-on stories of frayed marriages and entangled families, the younger partner of a Houston Lesbian couple amuses a dinner party with a clever line she drunkenly repeats three times. Newly abstemious Phoebe, unhappy spouse of Ben, “makes a mental note, in case she went back to drinking: it’s only funny once.” Phoebe and Ben are typical of the couples in Nelson’s stories. She finds something to hate in everything around her, while he is a “professional idealist.”
Winner of the 2003 Rea Award for the SHort Story and author of seven story collections and four novels, Nelson (Bound) has perfected the fiction of character and place. These 10 new stories are set in her home turf of New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and Colorado–far from the celebrity glare of the coasts. Their characters wrestle with infidelity, inebriation and infirmity. Their parents are suffering dementia and destined for a nursing home–in one story hauled off by their children listening to Tina Turner while “dad was riding in the grody bed of a truck, ductaped into an easy chair.” Their own children grow up distant or isolated, as if “suddenly transformed from the young girl they’d known into the adult they couldn’t fathom.” With an eye for the humorous contradictions and misplaced passions of people wanting badly but failing to connect, Nelson’s stories remind us that in the end there is nothing funny about the emotional distress of relationships–at least not more than once.”