THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A fictional photographer, back in focus

Julie Hecht, in front of the camera. Julie Hecht, in front of the camera.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nathaniel Bellows
June 22, 2008

Happy Trails To You: Stories
By Julie Hecht
Simon & Schuster, 209 pp., $24

Julie Hecht's fiction is narrated by an unnamed female photographer, married but childless, who approaches middle age with a psychic dread that extends beyond herself and out into the world. Readers were introduced to her in Hecht's much-lauded debut collection, "Do the Windows Open?" and then again in her underrated novel, "The Unprofessionals." Now, she returns in "Happy Trails To You," a brilliant collection of stories that continues the narrator's neurotic saga, while deepening and enriching it.

As with Hecht's previous books, the narrator is at her best - and, at times, her worst - in her favorite landscapes: Long Island, New York City, and Nantucket. In these places, she is free to struggle with what has developed into a complicated persona: equal parts naturalist and cable news junkie, a misanthrope who dreads social interaction, yet relies on it to reinforce her hermit-like ways.

In Hecht's earlier work, the anxious goings-on in the narrator's head could sometimes be so specific and over-indulged that some stories felt claustrophobic. Readers who were not fans of Hecht's books might find this new one too similar and, on the surface, much of it feels the same - the narrator's obsessive cocktails of prescription medication and herbal remedies, her preoccupation with vegetarianism and macrobiotics, her fixation on exercise and the ravages of aging. But here, too, is her humor, intact and more exacting than ever, a subtle horsewhip of a wit, predicated upon a kind of comic intolerance for what surrounds her: "That horrible thing, the computer, was in the room with us. It was the bad kind - big, and wired into the wall with a cable."

Hecht's narrator's voice has evolved over the years, but "The Unprofessionals" marked a turning point. The book tells the story of the odd and endearing friendship between the narrator and a young boy. The narrator's attempt to transcend her neurosis to help the troubled child feels genuine and honest, and it shows her capacity for empathy in what becomes a heartbreaking circumstance. It is the aftermath of this and its effect on her that sets the tone for these new stories, giving their underlying themes - mortality, depression, helplessness, exile - all the more power.

In "Over There," the narrator visits an elderly neighbor during the Christmas holidays. The woman's solitary life and simple habits evoke the narrator's feelings of futility and inadequacy when recalling her parents' lives, "forbidden territory, the land of wishing my father and mother were alive." As a revelation it is crushing, but it bears some hope, as it allows her to see the value of getting out into the world: "There was always something to learn. I learned something every time I went over there."

And yet the world is exactly what confounds and antagonizes her most, whether ruminating on the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky sex scandal ("Being and Nothingness"), or the previous election ("A Little Present on This Dark November Day"), or visiting a neighbor whose son has just been released from rehab ("Thank You For The Mittens"). She manages to live in the world, while remaining confounded and horrified by it.

Despite the perpetual disappointments and disillusionment, it seems Hecht's narrator cannot resist trying to find and recapture the kind of closeness she'd had with the boy in "The Unprofessionals." This is the case in the final, titular story, where she engages in phone conversations with a young reporter who is writing an article about her. They become friends, and the relationship evokes memories about the narrator's life: the love and respect she had for her father when she was young; her mother's surrender to a thankless life of housework and child care; her estranged relationship with her sister, in part due to "her inability to get over my having been born." Like the photographs the narrator captures in this new collection, she too comes into greater focus, as Hecht reveals, with a careful, confident hand, a woman who is many things: fraught and frustrating, hilarious and hopeless, but ultimately, just an individual trying to survive in the world.

Nathaniel Bellows is the author of the novel, "On This Day," and a collection of poems, "Why Speak?"

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