Melissa Bank, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing (Viking, 1999)
[originally posted 13Jul2000]
Whatever you have heard, and whatever the blurbs on the back cover tell you, this is not a novel. It’s a collection of short stories, all (save one) dealing with the life of one Jane Rosenthal as she goes through adolescence and young womanhood (up till 35ish). They’re in chronological order, and they often deal with the same set of characters, so it’s easy to see how some might be confused, but short stories they are—and fine ones, too.
Bank’s narrative style has that same sweet naivete that makes Vanderhaeghe, Cunningham, and Canin (just to name a few off the top of my head) so worth reading. Jane gets herself into scrapes, gets herself out of scrapes, turns around and makes the same mistakes over again, and we’re tempted to shout “don’t go in the basement!” as if watching a horror movie.
And like those aforementioned authors, Bank writes a form of fiction that is probably best called “eighties fiction that actually has a point to it.” While it’s not about anything in the strict sense, its mission is to illuminate the human condition, both how it affects a single person and the world around her, and how her travails resemble those we all go through every day. It’s not an easy task to perform, and Bank is one of those few who does it ever so well.
Interestingly, perhaps the strongest story of the bunch is the one that focuses not on Jane, but on her downstairs neighbors, “The Best Possible Light.” We are introduced to a new cast of characters, and the ones we have grown familiar with are mentioned only in passing; whereas the rest of the book gives you a comfortable stomping ground and characters that are drawn over the space of multiple stories (and thus we have time to grow with them; a conceit that can sometimes mask flaws in characterization), “The Best Possible Light” gives us a whole new bunch, and only twenty pages for us to get to know them and the particular oddnesses that shape their lives. Perhaps it is because of this unfamiliarity and the skill with which Bank handles it that this story stands apart from a collection that is already quite strong.
An enchanting debut full-length from a writer destined, I hope, for great things. Highly recommended. ****