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Nobody Ever Gets Lost

Seven short stories, linked by the event and resonance of September 11th, constitute Jess Row’s Nobody Ever Gets Lost. Modern, pertinent, worldly, these stories speak directly to the reader, drawing one in, compelling one to keep reading, to engage. Row’s prose is self-conscious but never awkward, rich and rewarding.

Seven short stories, linked by the event and resonance of September 11th, constitute Jess Row’s Nobody Ever Gets Lost. Modern, pertinent, worldly, these stories speak directly to the reader, drawing one in, compelling one to keep reading, to engage. Row’s prose is self-conscious but never awkward, rich and rewarding.

Though by no means a novel in stories, the pieces in this volume are meaningfully linked. From the backpacker in Thailand who falls in with a fanatic Christian missionary, to the Yale Freshman who must wrestle with the Islamic fundamentalism of a dorm-mate, these stories all revolve around religion, globalism, and the plight of the individual.

Whether set in America or abroad, Row’s stories grapple with the question of how to navigate the present-day world. As one of his characters, a Korean-American woman who has hired a half-Jamaican man to care for her ailing mother, laments: the world is so “fucking mixed up. Spring rolls and matzoh balls. Filipinos doing your nails and Koreans doing your laundry and Guatemalans bringing your Chinese food and Hasids handing you pamphlets every time you come out of the subway.” The world of these stories is real and complicated and so forceful is the fiction that one is obliged to believe.

Plot, character, setting, these basics of fiction writing are all in place. Beyond that, Nobody Ever Gets Lost offers philosophy. There’s the crazy fringe artist whose girlfriend is drawn into his revolutionary vision. There’s the father who, in a freak accident, lost his daughter and considers finding consolation through meaningful crime. Most intriguing for this reader was the linguist, the translator, who happened upon a newspaper article detailing the accidental death of two girls. Drawn in to the story in a way she doesn’t understand, the translator confronts her own existential crisis in a Duane Reade store, as she suffocates at the sight of merchandise and eventually:

sees the exit at the end of an aisle and hurries towards it, hardly able to stop from breaking into a run. White sunlight splashes her face, city sunlight, refracted by a hundred mirrored windows. Gratefully she breathes in exhaust and kebab smoke. What an American problem, she thinks, what to buy when nothing you can buy will make it any better, when no object makes any difference at all.

Like many of Row’s characters, this narrator doesn’t know which way to turn in this world, searches for meaning and wills herself to find it.

There are moments when the prose is too self-aware. Two of the stories in the volume, “The Answer” and “Sheep May Safely Graze,” feature first person narrators who are overly self-indulgent. This indulgence treads the line between character definition and authorial heavy-handedness, as when the college-age narrator of “The Answer” relates a simple scene:

Rafael stays seated, and I next to him, in a half-crouch, a helper’s pose. (I’m not blind to subtext. Say, for argument’s sake, that my heart is temporarily opened. Say that a look of torment fixes me to the ground.) And then he stands up and dusts himself off and twists away. There year – I should mention this, shouldn’t I? The year is 1993.

Passages such as this distract from the strong narrative, which does not benefit from these rather belabored and unnecessary moments of overwriting.

As a collection, Nobody Ever Gets Lost is, simply put, stunning. Pick it up, enjoy it, spread the word. This is writing to be delighted by and a writer to look for more of.

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