erasing clouds

Budnitz's Stories Live Happily Ever After

Judy Budnitz, Nice Big American Baby (Knopf)
review by matthew webber

Other reviewers have labeled the short stories that appear in Judy Budnitz’s second collection, Nice Big American Baby, as modern-day fairy tales or fables. Although, like fairy tales, many of the stories are set in strange foreign lands or parallel-universe America-composites without names; and, like fables, many of the last paragraphs and even sentences distill their stories to a single moral or image; the characters and emotions in Budnitz’s tales are grounded in human reality.

In Budnitz’s stories, which have appeared in McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, and The O’Henry Awards, mothers, daughters, sisters, and lovers are jealous of one another. Characters seek love and acceptance, whether from mail-order brides (“Nadia”), elephants (“Elephant and Boy”), or strange, untalkative men who wash ashore their island (“Motherland”).

Even Budnitz’s fantastical leaps of logic – a baby, born “coal black, ink black” to white parents, changes into a pinkish-white baby overnight (“Miracle”); a family traps traveling salesmen in a pen in the backyard (“Sales”); a Civil War doctor envies his amputees (“The Kindest Cut”) – are grounded in recognizable moments. Like so many other young couples, it is the couple that birthed the changeling baby, even more so than the baby itself, that undergoes the change – not in the two people’s skin colors, but in the sad way they come to interact with each other, no longer resembling the lovers they once knew.

In fact, the unreality and hyperreality in Budnitz’s stories call attention to what feels so real about them. This is why the collection’s longest and most remarkable story, “Saving Face,” is also the story most unshakable from my memory days after finishing the book.

Constructed like a testimony, the narrator of “Saving Face,” Giita, tells of an Orwellian dystopia where the face of the county’s female prime minister stares out from portraits in every flat surface like a Big Sister. When Giita’s friend/lover/admirer gets commissioned to paint an updated prime minister’s portrait, he chooses her face to replace the old one, thereby making her the de facto prime minister, years later, when people actually notice the new face and how much it resembles hers. At this point, in the throes of a coup, they are trying to kill her, who, by the way, is a former national swimmer, chosen as such because of her webbed feet.

But really, I’d say, the story is about love, like all of the greatest stories in history, like so many of the tales in Big Fat American Baby. Enjoying them often requires a leap of faith, the acceptance of a premise, a suspension of disbelief; but, after that moment, until the ultimate image, happy rereading ever after is believable.


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