Other Kinds, by Dylan Nice. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2012. 120 pages. $10.95, paper.
The way seasons transition, so too do Dylan Nice’s stories in Other Kinds. Nice’s stories inhabit that sort of isolation very few people understand outside of the Midwest, a place of all seasons. Born in and of the Midwest, Nice’s stories and characters push toward the necessity and immediacy of moments, moments that arguably articulate experience beyond the surface of reason. The collection, reading as if linked by speaker and split into three sections, starts in childhood and then progresses through life from there. The first trio of stories—“The Mountain Town,” “Thin Enough to Break,” and “Wet Leaves”—offers the reader a look into the speaker’s childhood and adolescence that, while it is not exactly rooted in trouble, still reels from the effects of an idea of permanence, in actions undertaken, in relationships both built and broken—a permanence that, years later, manifests itself in an unflattering pride and arrogance on part of the speaker.
“Mountain Town” best illustrates a departure from childhood into adolescence; words from the father posing insights into an interior until then only internalized by the speaker, or, at best, inferred by the reader:
Once, on a holiday drive with my father, the forest around us broke and we drove a ridge above a valley of vinyl-sided houses.
“Look at all those boxes,” he told me. “And each one has its own little problems.”
I looked down on them and only imagined those upper rooms and their daughters…I saw myself in their rooms, in their down and cotton, in the canopied beds bought for a childhood that was to remain a secret, untouched by labored hands.
Here is a marked awareness. The speaker’s thoughts move toward a secret childhood, one that the father, what little comfort he is, could never figure out entirely; not now and not when he himself was young. This exchange can be used to highlight the theme at the heart of this collection: can anyone ever figure it all out? Does anyone?
Part two of the book concerns itself with the Other, in the way the speaker judges other characters. And yet, in this section, the speaker finds love—a sort of unrequited love that, at its core, is new, strange, and something not to be trusted. The beginning of this love can be seen in the first story of the section, “Ice Flow”—the name itself actually positing a break, a distinct separation or divergence:
Tom drank his beer and knew he couldn’t make this a different kind of conversation. He had wanted to talk but this talking was bad and it always turned out that way. You always talked until it got bad and you decided to quit. Elise smoothed her hair and looked towards the end of the booth waiting for someone to ask her a question she could smile at and talk about.
The stories that follow—“We’ll Both Feel Better” and Artifacts”—further expound upon this theme of divergence. In them, people come together, forming relationships, and then promptly move on, breaking those ties to one another. It is this action that informs the speaker’s development, and the slight arrogance found in the voice—an arguably regional voice deeply affected by change, stemming from an awareness of the past beyond his years.
When talking about Midwestern literature it is important to look for the gothic, or elements that work in some grotesque way. While not all of the stories follow the elemental nature of the grotesque, there are a few that prove such a point. In Other Kinds this proof is found in something as small and serious as a cut to the finger.
The third and final section of the book does not bring the collection full-circle, but rather encourages and documents the speaker’s nostalgia, having moved too far on to circle back completely. It is this way that a sense of the past, a personal history, is reflected upon and moved toward—practically. Rooted in this nostalgia is a strong sense of urgency or longing, a longing ever-present throughout the collection. A longing not necessarily for home, but the feeling of home:
When I woke, it was still dark. I remembered where I was and left…The traffic lights were still blinking red as I started toward the corn. I wanted to see the size again, the way it made time feel longer. Once I was in it, I kept going. The blue of the sky lightened on the highway and turned to dawn by the start of the next state. My brother’s wife had bore a daughter back in the mountains where I was born. I needed to see a woman hold a child.
Nice’s writing embodies the idea of a past resurrected and personified through the tradition of story. His work arrives at a decidedly Midwestern isolation, that of pride derived from a moment’s immediacy. The reflections issue from the speaker as if they were sitting in an uncomfortable chair, invaluable and splintered, but treasured nonetheless.
Review by Nathan Floom, a founding editor of HFR