Nice Big American Baby, a collection of short stories by Judy Budnitz, is not the book to read if one wants to be reassured about the condition of humanity. But it is the book to read if one wants to be reassured about the condition of the short story. It is also the book one wants to read if one wants an eerie, unique take on family relationships. From the opening lines of the collection's first story, "Where We Come From," it is clear we are in the hands of a master. Budnitz's prose is spare and intense, nearly poetic:
There was a woman who had seven sons and was happy. Then she had a daughter. She loved her sons with a furious devotion. But she did not want the daughter, even before she knew it was a daughter. She could feel the baby sitting low in her belly and did not want it.
Another burden on my back, the woman thought, another mouth to feed. From the moment the girl was born she was frail and sickly; she greeted the world with a sneeze. The mother heard the sneeze and felt a heaviness descend upon her heart. . . . Then she looked at the tiny wrinkled face and felt ashamed. She resolved to love her daughter as she did her sons. She named the girl Precious, to remind herself. (3-4)
These paragraphs represent one of the preoccupations of Budnitz's collection: the love of a mother for her children, and its opposite. What happens to the child who is loved too much? What happens to the child who is not loved enough? Precious, whose mother never manages to love her, leaves her home at a young age and is impregnated by a soldier who apparently abandons her in favor of war.
Precious's surroundings (in a country that Budnitz never names) are violent, the lives of her countrymen often short, and she determines to have her baby in America, where he will be an American citizen, entitled to its privileges.
Budnitz's taut, cadenced prose spares us nothing of Precious's struggle. She crosses the American border in a truck and is found out and returned to her homeland. She crosses in a boat, with the same result. She crosses again and again, growing more and more pregnant. Budnitz informs us coolly, "She's been carrying her son for over a year now, with no intention of letting him go. . . . She carries him for two years. . . . She carries him for four years." (20-22)
This surreal twist is typical of Budnitz's stories. Her characters often fly free from the bonds of ordinary life, defying rules of biology and physics. This has the effect of distancing her audience; as Precious's ordeal continues past all normal limits, the reader draws back, watching to see how it all will end. But more, the surreal touches drive home Budnitz's point more vividly than could any bare statement of belief. The extremity of Precious's discomfort and determination is a reminder that we can be held captive by our children's needs, and that our love for them may in the end destroy us.
Not one of Budnitz's stories is comforting, but one, "Flush," holds out some hope for its characters. This story is more straightforward in its telling, although it still includes one of Budnitz's signature plot twists.
Two sisters in their twenties, Lisa and Mitch, take turns accompanying their mother to appointments for a mammogram, which the mother is reluctant to attend because of a family history of breast cancer.
This story highlights Budnitz's keen sense of mother-daughter relationships, and how they shift over time. Lisa's visit home is -- at first -- a regression for her. Her mother talks in martyred tones about the special soup she made just for Lisa, disapproves of her daughter's appearance, and even flings out an arm to stop Lisa from being thrown forward when their car stops short. Lisa, cranky, speaks to her mother in monosyllables.
At the clinic, however, the balance of power begins to shift. The mother is nervous, and Lisa finds herself in the role of parent, simultaneously comforting her and prodding her into the test.
The blurring of identity between mother and child that begins when an infant is born, and must eventually be rejected by the child in order to live an independent life, returns in a moment of crisis. By the story's end the women of the family have joined together in such solidarity that Lisa "could not remember who had the lump anymore, it seemed we all did." (49) Lisa says, "I thought about being my mother's daughter and my sister's sister, and I felt my edges start to bleed a little." (48) The family is closing ranks around its weakest member, offering love and strength.
The collection's final story, "Motherland," returns to the theme introduced in "Where We Come From": the effect of a mother's love. Unlike poor Precious, however, the children in "Motherland" are treated with such possessive devotion they know nothing about their own fathers.
"We live on an island of mothers," (261) begins the story, which is narrated by a teenaged girl named Joe.
Fifteen years before, the men of the island went off to fight a war, and in the meantime the island was invaded by men from the enemy nation, who "fell in love with the women. . . . They lay down together and became our fathers and mothers." (262)
This is a story in which the reader understands more than the narrator; we easily deduce that the union between the fathers and the mothers was less innocent than the term "lay down together" implies, and that love was not a factor in the experience. But Joe and her friends are naive and restless, and when a half-drowned, uniformed man washes up on the beach, they are delighted, each hoping he is her own father. The man, opportunistic, introduces the girls to a "game" that Joe observes as "a dark tangle, rhythmic rocking, a flash of bare legs. Animal panting." (281)
It is this type of elliptical, yet vivid image that saves "Motherland" from over-simplicity. It's a challenge, in this type of story, for a writer to reveal information without making her innocent narrator sound disingenuous, but Budnitz pulls it off. Joe's description of her mother looking at her "with slitted eyes" after a nightmare is chilling, and her mother's reaction on discovering the existence of the nameless man is shocking but not surprising.
"Motherland" will resonate with every mother who has watched with apprehension as her child slowly gains the power to make her own choices. By story's end Joe, strong-willed and ever restless, makes plans for her future that surely would not please her mother. After all she has witnessed she is still innocent, and readers are left aching to warn her about the disappointments and dangers she is bound to encounter. Yet Budnitz lays the blame for this on Joe's mother's shoulders. Protecting our children is well and good, she seems to say, but protectiveness can become suffocating, and lack of knowledge can make danger enticing.
If there is a flaw in Nice Big American Baby, it is that the stories, which appear arranged in no particular order, do not make a cohesive collection. While echoes exist between certain stories, they veer between realism, surrealism, and sci-fi; the change in tone and setting can be jolting. But taken one at a time the stories are ingenious, and they bear in common a sense that Budnitz is continually measuring the spaces between human beings, cataloguing the ways in which we meet and miss each other. These meetings and missings are particularly poignant when they occur between parent and child, but anyone can be damaged by a lack of human understanding and support. When this happens for Judy Budnitz's characters they crash and burn, and they do so brilliantly.