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Book Review: A Travel Guide for Reckless Hearts: Stories by N. M. Kelby

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There's a perverse sort of beauty to the short stories of N.M. Kelby. Most of her characters are Minnesotans driven half mad by the winters who motor down to Florida to find the good life. Instead they find parts of themselves that were better left buried in the snowdrifts. In her collection A Travel Guide for Reckless Hearts, Kelby tends to look at the mad romantic side of her world. There's an Elvis-like crooner who is immortalized in his Cadillac Eldorado mausoleum, an agoraphobic woman who just can't seem to board a jet back home to Chicago, a daughter who brings her thankless mother down to Florida only to find there is no such thing as devotion. This is love?

N.M. KelbyWell, in Kelby's world, love is a stand-in for more irrational behavior and sometimes it's pretty funny. Take the beginning of the first story, "Jubilation, Florida,"

"It's not a good idea. Nordan and Sara both knew it. Both are over forty. Both love their spouses. Both are drunk. Both are naked — and not thin."

Not too much good can come of that, and it doesn't, but at least it's a light-hearted story that one can put on the nightstand and chuckle about. Others are not so carefree. There is a disturbing tale, "We Are All Just Visitors Here," of a Vietnam veteran, almost surely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who can't get the war out of his head, even down in a retirement village in Florida. When his daughter arrives with a newly adopted Korean child, he loses his grip on reality and lets the child slip into danger. Accident? Or are they merely "displaced from their habitat," as the main character likes to say?

Some of the stories are almost beautiful, such as "The Faithful," a crazy yarn about a yanked-apart family of Minnesotans who are determined to spend New Year's Eve around a fire pit in furs, sipping Champagne, setting off fireworks, and taking a skinny dip in an impossibly cold lake. The woman, Kitty (how perfect), wears sunglasses and a coyote coat and practically howls to the moon in their celebration. Whacked? You bet. But if the title's any hint, they are sticking to Minnesota come thick or thin, and that is some kind of resilience to admire.

But Kelby hits the skids with "Subtitled," an aching and awful drudge through the life of a well-meaning woman who rescues her mother from poverty and drags her to Florida to live in a trailer park. Life looks rosy, even as the daughter budgets herself into a hole to keep Mom alive. Then it all comes whirling apart when the mother steals fruit at a market, and the daughter is forced to pay for the purloined item. The relationship is fragmented forever. The mother dies soon after, declaring that love is a joke. Kelby never lets the reader in on what ticked within that tortured family. I suppose it seems arty to some, but it feels unfinished, like an intriguing tale interrupted by bad thunderstorm.

Most of all, I wish Kelby would move on and stop writing about touristy underwater "mermaids" and Minnesotans who can't adjust, and strike out for some new territory. She's been relying on this dazzled-Yankee-in-the-sunlight material too long. Would that she would write more stories like "Relative Victories," the tale of the woman who overcomes her agoraphobia and finds herself flying free not only of restrictions but returning to love. This is new ground for Kelby and a fine place to explore.

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About Lynn Voedisch