June 10, 2004
Nadelson Writes It Short and Sweet
"Saving Stanley: The Brickman Stories," by Scott Nadelson (Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts, $15.95).
Recently, a number of young Jewish writers have made successful entrées into the world of publishing. Jonathan Safran Foer, Gary Shteyngert, Dara Horn and others have published novels to critical acclaim, won prizes and, more importantly, audiences for their work.
As opposed to those writers, first-time author Scott Nadelson has chosen the short story as his form. Many Jews, young and otherwise, write novels. We tend, it has been said, to be a people with a lot to say. But short stories don't allow for the expansiveness of longer books. They require concision and perhaps a certain sense of modesty. Something about not telling the whole story has to appeal to a short story writer, and it is that ability to suggest a fuller narrative without spelling it out that drives Nadelson's collection, "Saving Stanley: The Brickman Stories."
The stories draw upon the author's childhood and adolescence in suburban New Jersey to create a fractured portrait of Daniel Brickman, a boy at odds with himself and his world. He is often an unlikable character: He lies to himself; he is angry, impatient and desperate to be loved. And yet his creator has a soft spot in his heart for this damaged young man.
Nadelson has said that he is drawn to flawed characters like Daniel, because they elicit his compassion. In fact, the "more flawed he is, the more I like him," he declared in an interview. He sees Daniel's quest as an emotional journey, a journey with which he thinks we can all sympathize:
"Daniel sees his family and their flaws really clearly. He's most afraid of having to accept their flaws and love them anyway, which is the hardest thing for anyone to do. He has this fear of looking at himself and fear of being rejected by other people and a fear of having to accept other people with all their flaws intact."
It is this lost quality in his character, whom Nadelson describes as a "meaner and less self-aware version" of himself, that is so attractive to the writer. A character like Daniel retains his mystery -- Nadelson even asserts that he doesn't necessarily understand him even after finishing the book. He can envision returning to Daniel, checking in on him again when he's 40 to see if he has figured things out yet.
The journey may be Daniel's, but there is room in these domestic tales to pay some attention to his parents and brother, Jared, to tell something of their histories, their own emotional relationships to the world. But it is Daniel, in this collection, who needs to learn something, even if it is a small lesson, garnered on the way from the dining room to the kitchen. The other characters' "stories are taking place elsewhere," in Nadelson's words, and so even in the brief glimpses that we are given of them, we get to see where they've come from, where they are headed, and how one son could have become the man he is.
Nadelson himself came out West to pursue his master's degree in fiction writing. He has said that he only applied to schools west of the Rockies. He found himself at Oregon State, a "happy accident," because it was such a nurturing environment that allowed him not only to find his voice, but also his subject matter. Having just spent a year in Scotland, Nadelson was writing stories about Scottish characters, until one teacher suggested he look closer to his own emotional experience. The result was Daniel.
Nadelson worked on his book for two years before finding a publisher, or more correctly, a publisher found him. In another fortunate accident, he was awarded the Oregon Literary Fellowship, and the publisher, on the lookout for new authors, approached him and signed him within a month. This was indeed lucky -- he had been trying to get someone interested in his manuscript for a year and half without any takers, and then a new publisher, Hawthorne Books, based in Portland, scooped him up out of the blue. Now, he has joined the ranks of other writers whom he admires, most notably Isaac Babel and Bernard Malamud (perhaps not coincidentally, Malamud's short stories, in particular) who can treat the darkest of subject matter but still allow some light to shine through. What draws Nadelson most to writers is their ability to feel compassion for their characters, just as he does for Daniel.
These days, Nadelson is working on another collection, balancing his writing and teaching at two colleges, as well as serving a residency in a public high school in Portland, where he lives with his fiancée. He loves teaching -- although as he very delicately put it, "it has its frustrations" -- because it gives him access to so many talented and excited young writers. He would not say what the new collection would address, other than that it is not about Daniel. Maybe this time, we'll get to see those Scotsmen.