Lost Souls

Ann Cummins' short stories highlight characters beaten down by fate in the Southwest.

A cast of misfits resides in Red Ant House, Ann Cummins' deceptively roomy first collection of short fiction. There are hypnotists and drunks, third-rate roadies and men who work at water treatment plants. It would be an overstatement to call such folks dreamers. On the other hand, all of them know deep in their hearts that something better could be made of their lives.

In Red Ant House, Cummins follows each of these battered souls on their journey toward illumination--or immolation, depending on how events go. Set in the sun-blasted deserts of Arizona, where Indian reservations abut uranium mines, Cummins' tales read like the kind fiction Flannery O'Connor would have written had she grown-up in the Southwest. "I would marry my brother," says one woman in a fit of familial love, "though he's sinister and disrespectful."

Family is all that Cummins' characters have, but it often brings trouble. The narrator of "Starbust" worries his wife has become a kleptomaniac, while the gimlet-eyed heroine of the title story nurses her depressed mother. When home, she's called into duty to rub her mother's legs, which suffer poor circulation.

"Her legs were yellow logs. I didn't like to touch them, and so I would think of them as yellow logs split by lightning, with worm silk inside. I would close my eyes and rub the cold legs. Sometimes, if my mother didn't talk to me, if she only closed her eyes and breathed, I would forget I was in her room. I would put myself someplace else, Cherry Creek or Jesus Rock, and I would think of running my hands through soft things..."

A writing professor at Northern Arizona University, Cummins is a superb mimic, a flexible stylist. Watching her begin each story anew is like watching a talented actor play a scene from two different roles, back to back, without a hitch: It's hard to believe she does not have split personalities. "Blue Fly" takes us back in time to the turn of the century and tells of a young man's crushing want for love, which gets displaced onto his brother's wife. "Where I Work" describes the daily existence of a contemporary factory worker down on her luck.

Many of the characters in Red Ant House are victims of fate, a theme that Cummins beautifully underscores by noting, everywhere, the tableaux of Southwestern landscape. It's both a tabula rasa and a curse. In some cases, with irrigation and money, prettiness is possible. For the most part, however, nothing grows. Dust and snakes prevail.

A few of Cummins narrators' grow to love this unforgiving climate as they've grown to love their hard-edged, hard-drinking mothers and fathers. "I didn't mind the Wasteland," says the narrator of "Trapeze." "I loved riding shotgun in the car with the window open, the hot, dry air rushing past me, dreaming of Nancy Drew, whom I imagined gliding along next to me in her red convertible, a white scarf around her neck, a victory laugh on her face, blind to the sagebrush she crushed and the gullies she leapt. She'd dip in and out of dry washes, skip prickly pears, dodge hogans and sheepdogs and telephone poles."

Imagination, it turns out, is the best safety valve for Cummins' characters, many of whom are stuck in dead-end jobs or relationships. The few who do try to break out of routine often wind up with odd strangers, such as the heroine of "Dr. War Is a Voice on the Phone." In the story, a young girl answers the phone and begins talking to a man who inquires what she wears, where she lives. Meanwhile, the girl's aunt and uncle snooze through the afternoon.

Like many of the characters in Red Ant House, you want to reach out and protect this girl. She's courting disaster too nakedly for one her age. After all, isn't that a skill one grows into adulthood?

It'd be easy to talk down to these lost souls, but Cummins never does, speaking through them instead. Occasionally, one of them gives us a reprieve from this book's deadpan nihilism, its depiction of reckless passivity. For the most part, however, Cummins serves this stuff to us straight. And thanks to her gift for language, we drink down their woe and ask for more.

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