Funny Once: Stories by Antonya Nelson

Antonya Nelson is an award-winning writer of three novels and four short story collections. Funny Once, like her other collections, deals with life's tragic misfits - people who are victims of the poor choices they made or those they never made at all.

The book gets its name from the title story, "Funny Once." In it, one of the hosts of a dinner party remarks that most of life's events are "only funny once." This phrase becomes the central theme of the book and refers to those embarrassing, often belittling, events that befall everyone over a lifetime. In time, we may laugh about them - but not too heartily and with great humility.

"Funny Once" is about a married couple who are polar opposites. The husband (Ben) is "a professional idealist" and his wife (Phoebe) is a fearful pessimist. "She'd been raised by critics, pessimists; she was genetically predisposed" (p. 169). Self-medicating for depression, she seeks the help of a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist has little to say to her other than telling her to stop drinking and asking her if her husband demands rough sex.

Nelson's word play is reminiscent of the writing of Lorrie Moore; her characters are evocative of the early Anne Tyler. These are people whose dreams - if they had them at all - just never worked out.  Nelson's dark humor allows the reader to see her characters objectively and without pathos. Her writing is crisp and to the point.  As Donna Seaman concludes in her starred review:

Nelson is scandalously funny, her characters are royally screwed up
and wildly inept, and their dire predicaments bust down the doors on the
most painful of life's cruel jokes, from betrayal to divorce,
addiction, and old age.
(Booklist, April 1, 2014)

If you are a lover of short fiction with acerbic, perfectly placed one-liners, this is a collection you will not want to miss.

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