Illumination in Middle America

I'm one of several reviewers who have recently begun calling the Illinois short-story writer and sometimes-novelist Jean Thompson America's Alice Munro. Here's why.

Just as Munro chronicles what she calls the "lives of girls and women" endured in small Canadian towns and in the roomier environs of her characters' past lives, so has Thompson trolled for glints of meaning and the closure of understanding in the dingy housing developments, trailer parks and strip malls of (usually lower) middle-class Middle America.

Case in point: Thompson's widely praised 2007 collection "Throw Like a Girl," her fourth, explores addled and sometimes incendiary experiences warily shared by female friends (even when they're enemies), mothers and daughters, estranged or indifferent siblings, and other casualties of relationships and familyhood, offering jaded conclusions with a mocking been-there-done-that amalgam of resignation and stoicism.

She's at it again, with a discernible shift in emphasis, in "Do Not Deny Me." In a dozen painstakingly detailed examinations of attraction and repulsion, reconsideration and regret, we encounter such representative women and men as a depressed visitor (Ana) to her longtime married friend Lynn's home for an old-fashioned family Thanksgiving, and an undesired demonstration of the frailty of family happiness ("Wilderness"); that same Lynn a few years later, when her spouse has finally bailed out and her new commitment to running (for exercise, in her case) dredges up an unrecognized former acquaintance who's her pathetic ex all over again ("Her Untold Story"); a childless middle-age suburbanite whose compassionate bonding with a possibly abused young girl seduces her into dangerous territory indeed ("Little Brown Bird"); and in the superb title story, a recently bereaved young woman who relaxes into the clutches of a supposed psychic older friend.

High-concept situations, these, but Thompson prowls more mundane avenues of emotional stimulus and response with equal authority. For example, in "Liberty Tax," average Joe-and-Jane young marrieds dutifully scrimp and save to finance a higher standard of living, only to lose everything when go-getter husband Bobby falls for the blandishments of "speculation."

The victim of a hit-and-run accident finds both his confidence and his prejudices reconstructed when (in "Smash") he puts himself in others' shoes and unexpectedly morphs into a better person. An office lothario ("Mr. Rat") offers a quiet female co-worker the gift of his physical person, only to conclude that "I was a genius at self-preservation."

Thompson nods, in a somewhat preachy mood piece ("The Woman at the Well") set in a women's prison and inexplicably presented in awkward second-person narration; and in a clichéd portrayal ("How We Brought the Good News") of a yuppie couple separately grasping at pathways leading hopefully away from the dullness of the quotidian.

But she's at her brilliantly understated best in a plaintive indirect characterization of a weary, prissy milquetoast college English teacher whose unfulfilling days are energized and challenged by his busy imagination ("Soldiers of Spiritos"); a steely mousetrap of a story ("Escape") in which a stroke victim devises the perfect revenge against his embittered, shrewish wife; and the unforgettable "Treehouse," a classic depiction of an overburdened husband and father's revivifying retreat to the eponymous work of his own hands, undertaken because "the world had grown too large, ... too cluttered with bewilderment and pain. Now he had made it small enough to fit inside himself."

It's not a bad description of Jean Thompson's ultimately life-affirming fiction: fashioned with empathy, wit and insight; carefully measured and precisely crafted; and built to last.