Saving Stanley: The Brickman Stories by Scott Nadelson is a terrific collection of eight interrelated stories about Daniel Brickman and his family. The stories move back and forth in time and focus on different family members, eventually piecing together a family history from the grandfather’s Communist youth in Leningrad, the parents’ early years of marriage, and Daniel’s adolescence, to Daniel’s own marriage.
The stories that focus on Daniel’s mother Hannah are the strongest, starting with the title piece in which she fanatically nurses the family’s old, sick cat Stanley. Making Stanley the temporary but absolute center of her life causes Hannah to reconsider her relationships with academic colleagues, her husband, and her children. The later stories, “Why Not?” and “Hannah of Troy,” fill in details of Hannah’s years as the young, sometimes overlooked, wife of a scientist.
Many of the stories deal with Daniel’s troubled relationship with his older brother Jared. The best is “With Equals Alone” in which Daniel panics about starting high school with Jared off at college and Jared, uninterested in his own pending high school graduation, spends all his time and energy preparing for a local body building contest. The strain between the brothers is palpable, typical, and humorous – at least to outsiders.
“Kosher” and “Young Radicals” are the funniest of the stories. Daniel is a young adult in each, busy rebelling against his parents’ suburban life. In “Kosher,” he gets a shady job fundraising for the Robowski Fund for the Disabled – a charity benefiting only Helen Robowski and her sole employee. In “Young Radicals,” Daniel reconnects with his grandfather with vague plans for a college thesis on early Soviet history. His plans go awry when faced with the reality of his grandfather as a Florida retiree clash with his image of a fiery Russian laborer.
One weakness in the collection is that Nadelson does not elaborate on how the brother’s got along after they grow up. Also, the adult brothers, as characters, started to conflate. They were totally different people when they were young, and they remained factually different as adults, but what went on in their heads started to look the same. In “Anything You Need,” Jared and his girlfriend are having difficulties and he ponders what she wants that he can’t provide. In “Hannah of Troy,” Daniel has pre-wedding jitters and wonders what his fiancée wants that he can’t provide. With only eight stories in the collection and only one featuring Jared as an adult, it is a shame there wasn’t a broader range.
But that minor quibble shouldn’t keep readers away. Nadelson’s writing is fresh and clear and brings the Brickman family to life. Although only 212 pages, Saving Stanley packs the wallop of a long novel.
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Saving Stanley won the Oregon Book Award for Short Fiction and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. Scott Nadelson teaches creative writing at Willamette University and lives in Salem, Oregon.