Reviews of Ordinary Genius

Kirkus Reviews

Plainspoken, sharply observed collection from O. Henry Award-winner Averill (The Slow Air of Ewan Macpherson, 2003, etc.), first in a new series focused on the nation's heartland. A dozen stories explore the unexpected moments, surprises, shocks and setbacks of daily life in Kansas, a place where "late summer has its own rhythm of days, as dawn moves more slowly into the sky, as corn swells and stiffens in the fields." The author writes of couples like Harry and Mavis, who while expecting their first child observe a naked man running with a herd of deer that visits their land some mornings. The sense of wonder this creates eases Harry's transformation to fatherhood in some mysterious way. "Topeka Underground" is a midcentury fable about the artist's place in a conforming society. A white-bearded man and his tiny wife live in the basement of an unfinished house in a new suburban development. Despite his father's warnings to stay away, a young boy who lives nearby is drawn to the older couple by their unkempt lawn and eccentric habits. Once he discovers the treasures they've created, he realizes how extraordinary they are. "The Onion and I," another father-son tale, compares the earthiness of growing onions to the aridity of cyberspace. Some of these pieces are brief: "A Story as Preface: Running Blind" takes only a page to show a runner teaching a blind friend, who soon outstrips him; and "The Summer Grandma Was Supposed to Die" is almost as spare, although this account of a young boy being bitten by a rattlesnake is marred by an unnecessary last sentence. The most fully realized story, "During the Twelfth Summer of Elmer D. Peterson," takes up many of Averill's characteristic elements-asolitary young boy, a rule-setting father, a grandfatherly figure who fosters rebellion, and a powerful natural setting-and polishes them to a fine point. At its best, this creates a landscape at once realistic and fantastic, inhabited by characters whose eccentricities make them fully human.

Publishers Weekly

Nebraska inaugurates its new Flyover Fiction series, edited by Ron Hansen,  with this slim, elegiac collection by the author of Secrets of the Tsil  Cafe. "Nothing ever happens out nowhere, at the edge of Moscow, Kansas," reads the first story's closing line-but of course the preceding pages  belie that, as Moscow births more than its share of preternaturally gifted musicians and witnesses a few accompanying dramas. "Shopping" is a quick, devastating look at the thorny relationship between a middle-aged gay man and his crotchety father, a connection that shifts over the course of a trip to the grocery store; "Midlin, Kansas, Jump Shot" is a short, poignant investigation of the effects that grief and guilt have on a high school basketball player. In "The Bocce Brothers," orphaned 12-year-old twins wager on a game of bocce with a priest-if they win, he must reveal the name of their father-while in the poignant "Topeka Underground," a young boy forms an almost wordless bond with his strange, elderly neighbors. In all these stories, Averill illuminates the magical in the mundane: just because the rest of the world flies right over Kansas doesn't mean they're not missing out. Agent, Stephanie von Hirschberg.  (Apr.)

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