Book Review: A Common Person and Other Stories

R. M. Kinder, 200 pages, fiction, Notre Dame Press, softcover, $23 It could happen to you. We tend to associate the phrase with personal tragedies ripped from the headlines, and for the protagonist of “A Common Person,” the titular story in R.M. Kinder’s new collection of short stories, it kind of is. A Facebook post with a violent connotation, posted and then hastily deleted, lands Maggie in a sterile detention center, with the sordid tendrils of her past suddenly thrust under scrutiny that would have been unthinkable just one day prior. But if Kinder’s collection of stories shows readers anything, it’s that that phrase—it could happen to you—can have positive connotations as well. In “A Common Person,” Maggie’s flippant social media post leads to her having to confront seemingly benign events from her past that suddenly turn malignant. A stolen pistol would go on to be used in an armed robbery. Another gun, this one lent to Maggie’s then-boyfriend, would be used in an attempted rape unbeknownst to her. Maggie’s penchant for gun ownership and a few unfortunate coincidences suddenly paint a picture of her personality that looks very different from the way she sees herself. That aspect of the story, too, is broadly applicable to most people. And upon further internal examination Maggie realizes that, although she considers herself violence-averse, she isn’t immune to the occasional intrusive thought. Kinder writes, “When she disliked someone immensely, an unbidden image of the shot—not the victim, just the aiming and the trajectory and the specific impact point—rose.” Other characters, too, encounter situations that could have been sourced from any of our lives, such as trying to show compassion toward a neglected animal, or misadventures in the search for romance. And these stories do what fiction tends to do at its best—expose the sublime beauty and tragedy of everyday life. Although not all of Kinder’s stories point out the names of the cities and states they take place in, there exists in them a strong sense of place nevertheless. In the titular story the protagonist lives in an unidentified town somewhere not too far, presumably, from Kansas City, and the small, effective details Kinder relays of the place bring many Missouri towns to mind. One such place is Warrensburg, which Kinder has a connection to as a former professor of English at University of Central Missouri. During her time there she was editor of Pleiades, a literary journal published through the university, and she established Pleiades Press, both of which she still reads for today. A Common Person and Other Stories is Kinder’s third collection of short stories, and it is the winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction. Kinder is no stranger to prestigious literary awards, all three of her story collections have won prizes, and if you’ve had a close encounter with her prose—fastidious and urgent but with the humor and self-awareness of Twain—it isn’t hard to see why. The collection brings out the triumph, violence, and profound ambiguity lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. It is more than worthy of its acclaim and ought to garner scores of readers who may find themselves face to face with their own reflections in its pages.

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