Published:  12:00 AM, 29 January 2017

Noy Holland's tales of peculiar lives in hard places

I Was Trying to Describe What it Feels Like: New and Selected Stories by Noy Holland, publisher - Counterpoint LLC in January 1, 2017

For two decades, Noy Holland has been writing about the deep connections that develop between people and the natural landscapes they inhabit.

 The characters in "I Was Trying to Describe What It Feels Like" live in the rural neighborhoods of Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Opelousas, La.; and the Mississippi bottomlands, and spend their days hunting and working (and sometimes even bathing) with their shaggy dogs.

They trap raccoons and muskrats, talk to their horses, have names like Cricket and Hawk, and make loud love in the pachysandra. By the end of this unusual collection, it has grown hard to distinguish between the spiritual and animal aspects of human nature, or to understand why anyone would even try.

For those of us who haven't heard of Holland before, these new and selected stories testify to the fact that there are still fine short story writers out there, doing the hard job of serious literary production in our age of tweets and memes, just putting down one good story after another.

Some are novella-length and dense enough to constitute individual volumes, such as "Orbit," about a pair of young siblings left to care for their dying mother in a secluded rural home. When they aren't giving Momma morphine injections, staving off the flies or removing Momma's bad tooth with a pair of pliers, they play in the woods with turtles, tadpoles and cottonmouth snakes, and await the return of their errant father.

 In another long story, "What Begins With Bird," a new mother is reunited with her institutionalized sister, and together they share their love (in life and in dreams) for two babies - one that was born, and another that was not. (Being a mother and losing a mother are recurring themes in this collection.)

Holland's language is challenging, elliptical, bristling with sensation and resounding with the interior lives of complicated, recognizable people.

The narratives often shift points of view, slipping from one consciousness into another, and from one lived event to a reflection on that event many years later, until it is sometimes hard to tell when something is happening and to whom. Each sentence is hard, physical and surprising, as in a young boy's description of snake-hunting in the book's opening story:

"At the lake is a new moon, shining. It is best on a night when the moon is thin to lie alone in your metal skiff to listen for your skiff to tick and slur with the swim of the snakes' thick bodies.

They are in the deep part you dive into with stones to ride, or sometimes, by some skinny chance, you find them in the shallows. I pole out from the shallows - past pale frogs squat in the laps of trees I since have grown and done with. Such frogs - some harmless, yippy, simple-sighted house gyp's easy prey."

There is a surreal, funny, Barthelme-ish quality to many of Holland's briefer tales, some less than a page or two long. But her best stories are anchored in the peculiar lives of ordinary people, such as "Fire Feather Mendicant Broom," about a stonemason who wanders the country observing nature's fascinations: "a beetle walking out of its luminous shell, out of the barbs of its legs.

The orderly ways of elk herding up; moonset while the sun lifts, too." Or "Last of the Sweet," in which a woman awaits her daughter's Christmas visit on a snowy day, which rapidly grows so thick with reflection (and possibly dementia) that she doesn't know if she is inside her house, or outside of it.

There are distant echoes here of Ian McEwan's macabre, early work, Shirley Jackson's demonic families and even the apocalyptic landscapes of Cormac McCarthy.

But Holland is a much different writer still, entangling her readers in experience-rich narratives about the various ways people try to love one another, live their lives in hard places and, with the best words they can manage, "describe what it feels like."

The reviewer is an American essayist, critic and fiction writer, resides in London, England
www.nytimes.com

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