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The State of Kansas by Julianna Spallholz

Review by: Nancy Jainchill

The demarcation between fact and fiction has become increasingly blurry, which although controversial, is largely welcome. In Julianna Spallholz’ debut collection, not only are the boundaries between fiction and poetry sometimes nebulous, her images and experiences and voices are so concretemany of these short vignettes could easily “pass” as nonfiction. A number of the pieces sound real and feel real. One could characterize the writing as nuanced observations, the elaboration of particulars, whether thoughts or actions and, in a number of the stories, sequenced events.

Many of these vignettes are disturbing. I was unsettled by events in the stories that are close enough to ordinary to be hauntingly believable. The thoughts the narrator shares are thoughts that any reader might have had at some time in her life. For example, “The Boyfriend” fringes fantasy and reality. Although the writer’s boyfriend is not literally a vampire, the piece is grounded in a psychological reality of destruction and immortality.

Spallholz is effective in creating suspense. “Men” starts out slowly, almost boring. The tension builds with the suggestion of threat, and the threat becomes more dangerous, and then with a theoretical “flick of the wrist,” the threat is removed, and the story ends. This is similar to the vignette, “Dog.” The reader is left with no sense of resolution, although the narrator escapes.

A number of the vignettes capture an element of the absurd and slightly macabre. In the “Village.,” a tale that is less than half a page, the protagonist hits and kills a deer, and then straddles the dead deer, which is warm and soft, to reach the village, “a slow effort” for both of them.

One of the longer stories, “Thanksgiving,” deftly portrays  a stereotypical Thanksgiving meal. Spallholz shades the tale with humor, the narrator laughing at herself. She also offers wonderful detail about eating behavior: “The others at the table fed themselves well, with energy, with concentration, with stamina. …the busy sound of breath through the nostrils, the satisfied grunts and burps and mm sounds, the juicy sounds of spit mixing with food mixing with tongues…”  And further on, a sensuous description of cutting into a pie, juices, “angel babies…and the bright, promising, perfect future” bursting forth.Throughout, there is a twisted sense of the macabre—a mixture of the sinister and the absurd. The title piece, “The State of Kansas,” also a longer piece about memorizing the states, has wonderful humor, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was a connection to The Wizard of Oz,” “Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore.” How can anyone forget the state of Kansas?

Spallholz’ writing is parsimonious and efficient. She uses a minimum of words to convey a feeling, a message, even a story arc, sometimes in only half a page. The focusing on the minutiae of daily life, as she does in the piece, “The Bug”—the individual’s actions, thoughts and ruminations—are  familiar to the reader. There is a stream of consciousness quality to these vignettes that reflectthoughts that we all have but generally keep to ourselves. In “Jump,” Spallholz writes about night fears that includedetails about how she will rescue her cat in case of fire. These stories, which reflect our common realities, our inner, mental perambulations, I found most effective. “Who Will Take the Cat” is another example of this kind of writing. The humor and accuracy about how decisions are made of who gets what, in relationship breakups is wonderful. And the story ends with a larger question, the heart of the matter.

Not all stories can “work” in a collection such as this one. For those that don’t carry themselves, the purpose of telling the story is less apparent. There are also several instances of short writing—the pit bull, its teeth clenched to the limb of a tree cannot also be screaming. It’s important when reading such an imaginative book not to be too literal.

Mostly, though, Spallholz makes you stop, take a deep breath, and sometimes laugh, while at other times, feel a deep discomfort in the pit of your stomach—a lot to achieve in any work and proof again that the best art almost makes the best read.

     Nancy Jainchill is a psychologist practicing in Woodstock, NY and New York City. She has edited the volume, Understanding and Treating Adolescent Substance Use Disorders, forthcoming August 2012. She is currently a MFA candidate at Bennington College focusing on creative nonfiction.