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When Judy R. Budnitz ’95 published the short story “Miracle” in the New Yorker last summer, my mother saved a copy of the magazine for me. “I don’t get it,” she said. “Can you explain to me what’s going on?”
On a first read, I didn’t get it either. The story, which appears in Budnitz’s newly-released collection “Nice Big American Baby,” describes a white couple’s abuse-riddled marriage brought to crisis by the wife’s birth of a perfectly black boy. She hasn’t had an affair, but her husband’s suspicions turn to hatred of the ebony infant Gabe, assuaged only when the baby’s appearance abruptly changes to that of the white child they would have expected.
The thing that threw me off was that the story has no reek of allegory or race didacticism where you might expect it. Instead, there’s humor, as when a black woman confronts Julia in the grocery store about how to properly style Gabe’s hair, a naturally blond hue which she accuses Julia of peroxiding, or when Julia’s friends speculate about the real identity of the baby’s father.
My mother felt frustrated, and after a read, so did I. “I don’t get it,” she repeated. “Is this supposed to be some sort of a divine thing? I mean, his name is Gabriel.” At the time, I couldn’t answer, but in the context of this new collection, the answer is more evident: the miraculous birth of a baby named Gabe is just another product of the wondrous and reality-bending imagination of this gifted young writer.
Fantasy, birth, and appellation are three themes that Budnitz explores thoroughly in this 12-story collection. The first story, entitled “Where We Come From,” features Precious, an impoverished woman in an anonymous third-world nation. (The odd name was chosen by Precious’s mother as a consistent and much-needed reminder that her love for her sons extended to her daughter.) Precious carries a child for three toil-filled years through many attempts to cross the border into the States, in order to produce the “nice big American baby” of the title.
In the story, the fantasy of the delayed birth becomes aligned with Precious’ determination to deliver a child whose size she sees as “proof of his American-ness.” These stories stretch from reality, but never very far, and only as amplifications of events occurring in a real universe, as in the diffidence and violence present in the couple of “Miracle.”
The theme appears again in “Nadia,” when a humble science teacher becomes an international adventurer in search of a purchased foreign bride’s abandoned daughter. Once familiar with this hyperbolic style, where the conventions of our physical universe are stretched, or at least exaggerated, the real issues behind Budnitz’s stories are easier to approach.
Budnitz is at her best when dwelling in this fantastic reality, but only when her issues stick to the very personal. “Preparedness” tells the absurd story of a gun-totin’ American president who issues a false alarm of mutual assured destruction (MAD) and is horrified to see citizens doing anything but taking cover, instead fulfilling their long-latent fantasies. The story catalogs beautiful glimpses of life in an Edenic state of anticipated death, recurring with each subsequent government MAD “fire drill.” But the scenes of the president are too ridiculous to operate as sharp satire; the character is too goofy and the story mocking in ways too unoriginal to be admitted.
The same goes for the summer tale of “Immersion,” in which racial prejudices engrained in children are acted out around the town swimming pool. Though the story evades the trap of complete triteness by eventually introducing a mysterious and deadly disease plaguing the community, oft-tread cliches weigh down the story’s first half.
“Nice Big American Baby” is the work of a writer whose interminable imagination pulls her in immensely far-reaching dimensions. The collection is outstanding for its range of setting and style, from dystopian futures to elephant graveyards, but Budnitz never forgets to weave the thematic strands that stitch up the book and make it feel like a truly united collection.
—Staff writer Christoper A. Kukstis can be reached at email@example.com.
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