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People I Wanted to Be by Gina Ochsner

The Lonely Shall Inherit the Earth

The characters that populate Gina Ochsner's second book of short stories, People I Wanted to Be, are troubled. They are troubled by death -- their own deaths, deaths they've caused, and deaths that have been inflicted upon them; and by their failings, their ennui and their inability to understand or envision their lives as anything other than what they are. They are fully realized people with all the imperfections and wonderful humanity that brings. The stories are, in a sense, escapist stories, for Ochsner creates a different world for her readers to inhabit for the ten, twenty, or thirty minutes it takes to read each. This is a difficult task, and Ochsner's talent is impressive.

The best story in the collection, "The Hurler," is also the story least characteristic of the collection. It is funny and creepy and resonant. The unnamed narrator is cleaning out her parents' house after their deaths. She looks at "the cluttered living room, at the old bellflower-shaped gramophone that breathed the fragrance of moths, at the volumes of ornamental books with gold-embossed spines" and finally at "Ferdinand, my father's hedgehog, now stuffed." Seeing Ferdinand, she has an inspiration and soon she has constructed the titular hurler to launch old cameras, worn-out tires, and the detritus of her parents' lives into the nearby dump.

Ferdinand, of course, goes as well, and soon the narrator is hurling her neighbor's unwanted items in addition to her own. But the unwanted items are no longer promise rings and broken hair dryers: a neighbor's mother is tossed, and the hearts of a jilted lover and, eventually, the narrator's own heart. The story is most impressive for its immediacy, and inevitability. There are no difficult questions the narrator must resolve, but nonetheless, her fatalism makes the story a little disturbing, but gripping and excellent as well.

The best distillation of Ochsner's style -- and the story that most typifies that style -- is "The Fractious South", which was published in The New Yorker last summer. In it, a Russian Jew named Misha, whose father died in the Soviet-Afghanistan War, is drafted to fight in Chechnya. When he returns home, Ochsner writes, "nothing was right. Grandpa Ilya spent his days sitting on a metal bench in the dvor, a dusty courtyard behind the apartment building. Instead of stringing his udochki, a fishing rod made from a birch switch, he sat tying flies he had no intention of ever using. 'The fish can't even swim straight anymore,' he explained."

Misha is the only one of his peers fortunate enough to survive; Chechen rebels have immolated two, one is "blown to bits," and a fourth, "a troubled genius," shoots himself. But something in Misha cannot be made right, and though he and his wife try repeatedly to have a child, for Misha this is only to make her happy, and keep her distant.

The wonderful thing about this story is the way in which it creates an atmosphere, a place, and, through these, an entire world in which the reader can exist. Misha's experiences in Chechnya occur off the page, but their effects resonate in his arguments with his wife and his reactions to his neighbors.

Paradoxically, Ochsner's strength is also her weakness. Many of these aren't really stories, per se; rather, they are out-of-body experiences in living somewhere else for a little while. So many of Ochsner's protagonists are aimless -- more than half of the eleven stories in the collection center around people who are unhappy, restless, and otherwise adrift. Ochsner writes about these people very well, but the stories lack a drive forward as much as their characters do. There is no drive to the narrative in these stories, no need to see what happens next. As a reader, you can enter and leave the stories at random, with little ill effect. This can be good or bad, impressive or dull, depending on your preference and perspective. For Ochsner, in the end, the story itself is the world.

People I Wanted to Be by Gina Ochsner:
Houghton Mifflin
Paperback/$12
ISBN: 0-618563-72-5
192 pages