Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 2/14/2006
Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz is a conglomeration of the weird, the politically tongue-in-cheek, and evidence that the short story is more alive today than it’s ever been. Budnitz’s stories are so incredibly different—so inspired—that it’s a little disorienting. You’ll need to come up to breathe between these tales, or else you may just drown in their lyricism and remarkable grasp of plot and imagination.
In “After”, Budnitz writes of a couple that adopts a seemingly perfect child who is plagued by a mysterious face that visits him at night. The child is aloof towards his parents, and we are shown the deep, maternal pain of the mother, longing for her son to need her, physically and emotionally. “To her surprise, she found the bottom sheet damp. Never before had her son wet the bed. She dipped her fingers in the wet spot, feeling fascinated, amazed, intensely maternal. My son, she thought proudly, wets the bed.” Regardless of being a parent or not, Budnitz forces her reader to feel—full on—the force of love, and the powerful ache of a mother who isn’t needed.
In “Flush”, Lisa, our protagonist, takes turns with her sister, Michelle, in flying home to visit their parents. In the story, it’s Lisa’s turn. She soon discovers that her mother, having a history of breast cancer in her family, is skilled at avoiding her doctor’s appointments. She ultimately ends up taking the breast exam for her mother, and eventually finds out that her sister has also been doing the same. At its core, the story is about the deep bond of womanhood between female relatives, and the absolute terror of a disease so intimate as breast cancer. It’s about being an individual as well as a collective force of person.
“Saving Face”—one of the most impressive stories in the collection, centers on an alternate universe with a dystopian feel to it. Instead of Big Brother, there is a female Prime Minister, whose face is displayed everywhere, and due to this, has complete control over society. Giita’s (our protagonist) best friend and would-be lover, takes a job as the new portraitist for the Prime Minister, ultimately painting Giita’s face as the new “version”, which forces her into hiding, once a rebellion begins to stir. It is a chilling tale—one that is long and expansive, and touches upon several important themes. What is the line between love and obsession? How fully can one possess another?
In “Sales”, our protagonist lives with her brother and his wife. Her brother is in the business of catching and entrapping door-to-door salesmen. “You can see their priorities at a glance: Some have filthy ties and spotlessly shined shoes; others let the dust build up on their toes and keep their ties and pocket squares clean. Sometimes you can see an eye, sometimes two.” It is one of the strangest tales in the collection, with a mix of female angst, caught up in the universal desire for beauty and understanding. It also encompasses the pangs of a young girl who craves romantic love, and is denied such things.
My favorite story, which happens to be the last, is “Motherland”. The tale centers around an island of women, “We live on an island of mothers.” The story cycles between a chorus of the young daughters, and a more specific protagonist, named Joe. It is such a beautiful blend of longing and nostalgia; it delves in deeply to what the female human condition is, and can be made into by pain and longing. There is equal parts love and hatred for “man”, and the story is written like a lullaby that seems both familiar and strange.
All fourteen of these stories bring to the table a plethora of themes, of ideas, that cut to the heart of the matter. They are haunting, oftentimes disturbing, and play off the deep universal desires of humanity. They are about being human, despite their surrealist settings. Such innovative and bold writing is incredibly exciting to come across for the avid, literary reader .
Reviewed by MB Sellers