Julie Hecht’s hilarious, neurotic narrator has been complaining about modern life since 1989, first in the pages of the New Yorker and then in two volumes of fiction, Do the Windows Open? (1997) and The Unprofessionals (2003). A photographer who splits her time between New York and Massachusetts, Hecht’s unnamed baby boomer spends the leisure-loving ’90s panicking over Long Island traffic, stuffy rooms, an optician she believes is a Nazi, the embroidered Ralph Lauren polo player, and people who eat meat. Though she faces some genuine sadness—reproductive problems and the loneliness of extreme anxiety—the narrator of these early tales is primarily obsessed with trivialities.
But as times have changed, so has the character—wonderfully, bracingly so. Hecht’s latest story collection, Happy Trails to You, is piloted by the same half-babbling, half-deadpan voice, now with larger, more political concerns. Windows that don’t open are bad enough, but what about global warming, inflation, George W. Bush, and the Iraq war? (Intriguingly, September 11 is generally avoided, as though too difficult to mention.) These aren’t merely the worries of an eccentric middle-aged East Coast vegetarian; they’re the all-too-common concerns of the mainstream liberal consciousness. In the new century, Hecht’s narrator is suddenly less alone in her alarm and alienation, finding more kindred spirits than ever before. For conversation, she now has a yoga instructor, a professional gardener, and a high-powered mother of four, none of whom are as batty as she is herself, but all of whom share her chagrin at “our new cruel and tough society.”
Of course, she’s still kooky, preferring to spend time on Nantucket rather than “in America,” as though the latter were some ugly foreign land. She’s also still prudishly critical, pathologically dependent on psychiatrists, and averse to touching paper money because of the germs. But Hecht plays with this stereotype on many levels, and the collection’s strongest moments describe a frustration with civilization that can’t be blamed solely on psychosis. Having watched too much coverage of the Clinton impeachment, the narrator takes down the flapping American flag that keeps her awake at night. “It’s the patriotic thing to do,” she reasons. “Because when people see the flag, they’re reminded of America—our country—and what’s going on inside it.” Confronted with a nagging sense of loss—of country, of self—the narrator mourns constantly: in conversations with people born after Kennedy died, at the Nantucket restaurant where John Kerry once ate, on the phone with a good-humored Texan rejected by his family for being gay, and in her work as a photographer, which depends on catching the right light for each exposure. Missing that light, she says, reminds her of “everything missed in life.”
Like many liberals, she becomes one with her bed after Bush’s reelection in 2004. It’s a sign of acute anxiety, but as Hecht reminds us, it’s also a sign of the times. “I was thinking about the world,” the narrator admits. “This is a mistake and can lead to insanity.”