Reading the opening lines of the story "Miracle" in the New Yorker this summer, I feared I was about to be disappointed. Judy Budnitz, an intelligent writer whose previous two books, Flying Leap and If I Told You Once, I had admired in part for their perceptive portrayal of female characters, was now thinking about babies, and there, I thought, goes the neighborhood. In that moment, I imagined a flood tide of books about new motherhood as the next wave in chick lit. This may yet prove true, but I was wrong to suppose Budnitz would be involved. "Miracle" turned out to be an eerie exploration of a white couple's reactions to their newborn's inexplicably coal-black skin, and quickly won me over. In this strange, lovely story, Budnitz remains as alert as ever to instances of the uncanny. The story's final image, of a young mother poised to slice open her son's skin to uncover his true identity, lingers; it suggests the unpleasant but fundamental truth that we know little of those we love.
Much of Budnitz's new collection, Nice Big American Baby, centers on such familial relationships, which the author, true to form, mines for all their weird complexity. The title is taken from the book's first story, "Where We Come From," which sounds notes that resonate throughout the collection. In this story, a pregnant woman named Precious, from an unnamed country that appears to be Mexico, determines she will find a way to steal across the American border to give birth to her son. The journey ultimately takes four years, during which time the still-pregnant Precious "constructs a sort of sling for herself, with shoulder straps and a strip of webbing, to balance the weight. She uses a cane. She looks like a spider, round fat body, limbs like sticks." "Nice big American baby" is the mantra Precious chants during the ordeal of her pregnancy, though she cannot know how literally her prayer will be answered: that her son will emerge from her womb crying, in true American fashion, "Give me, I want, I need, I deserve, I have earned."
Both "Where We Come From" and "Miracle" (which is also included in the collection) move through the twilight terrain of parents and infants, but some of the collection's strongest stories document the equally strange wastelands that separate adult children from their parents. In "Flush," a timid mother, terrified of the potential result of her mammograms, coerces her daughters into undergoing the tests for her. "Visitors" is perhaps the wisest and most unsettling of the meditations on mothers and daughters. A series of increasingly alarming telephone conversations between Meredith and her parentsówho have become lost while driving to visit the young womanócontrast with the mundane talks she has with her boyfriend while she waits for them. (Alarming because the parents pick up a hitchhiker, who, though minimally described, appears to be a latter-day relative of Flannery O'Connor's Misfit; Meredith hears "the baying of dogs under and over and around her mother's voice" during one of the final phone calls.) Budnitz admirably conveys the protectiveness and exasperation Meredith feels toward her parents through deadpan dialogue with a skittering cadence:
"Where. . . . what are you near?"
"We just passed a billboard that said JESUS IS THE ANSWER. So what was the question, I ask you? Now we're at a gas station with those old-fashioned round-headed pumps. I should ask for directions, but . . . you know how your father is about asking directions."
"What's he doing right now?"
"Washing the windshield with one of those sponge-and-scraper things."
"While he's distracted, why don't you run ask someone?"
"Oh, honey, don't be silly. Besides, I hate to bother the attendant since we're not buying anything. We'll be there soon."
This offbeat sense of humor shines through at odd moments. The narrator of "Saving Face" describes an impromptu sexual encounter as "teeth crashing, hip bones knocking, like some incredibly complicated docking maneuver between two orbiting spacecrafts"; and one need know little more about the narrator of "Nadia" than that she imagines, when her friend gets a mail-order bride from Eastern Europe, the woman "running across a no-man's-land between her country and ours, dressed in her leotard and bare feet, sprinting across a barren minefield where tangles of barbed wire roll about like tumbleweeds." Such antic descriptions make Budnitz's prose sparkle, but she also has a talent for painting with a broader comical brush. "Preparedness" documents an unnamed president's failures to force adherence to a nationwide emergency preparedness system. Attempting to calm his advisers during one botched test, he assures them, "No one's dead. It's not real. It's just a stimulation."
Some of the stories in Nice Big American Baby turn a soberer eye toward culture and politics; "Immersion," perhaps the best of these, gives a girl's-eye view of racism in a '50s town, steering clear of sentimental homily by means of spare prose and the child's innate meanness. (She clearly knows exactly what she's doing when she invites her cousin Mattie, who is ill with polio, to night-swim in the pool the neighborhood black children have at long last asserted their right to use.) And indeed, for all their fanciful plot events and moments of wit, these stories are seriousómeaty and unsettling. When Budnitz looks at people's relationships to their natural, adopted, and sometimes imagined children, she does not see (as I had dreaded she might ) expensive strollers and brightly colored outfits, the signs of the sinister entitlement our generation seems to feel about having babies. Rather, instances of unkindness, aberration, guilt, confusion, and fear catch her eye; she uses her prodigious gifts to coax her reader away from any native squeamishness, and toward and into such difficult moments.
Emily Barton's second novel, Brookland, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2006.