Winner of the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award for Fiction
The ten stories in this haunting and hilarious collection offer a how-to manual for dealing with love, lies, and loneliness. Sam Wesson, an up-and-coming country-western singer, plots to get pregnant without her boyfriend’s consent, while Dacey, already pregnant, confronts her cheating husband over her secret checking account. Andrea rescues a stray dog to avoid facing her complicated human relationships. Sarah, an exotic dancer, longs for employment at a religious theme park, and Amelia dreams of creating impossible bonsai. Whether facing life-threatening illness or life-threatening loss, these characters scheme in humble, funny, sympathetic, and outrageous ways to find an etiquette that will deliver them from disappointment and shield them from crushing grief.
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Starred review from Publisher’s Weekly:
Urban takes readers on an amazing journey in this exceptional collection of short stories. She travels from a nameless hospital in the title story, where a young woman is trying to understand how her once perfectly healthy younger sister could be slowly dying of a tumor, to a Tennessee bar, where an up-and-coming country western singer yearns to make a baby with her unsuspecting boyfriend (“The Memoirs of Sam Wesson”), to an Evanston, Ill., center for healing, where an emotionally damaged employee is on the cusp of recovering from the death of her beloved adopted sister (“Planet Joy”). The author has an uncanny ability to explore relationships, love, and loss in a fresh and original way. In “Trying to Find a Corndog in Tompkins County,” an Arkansas woman, pregnant with her first child, contemplates fleeing the husband who raped her in order to claim the future she was meant to have. In “Welcome to the Holy Land,” an exotic dancer seeks redemption in a Tampa religious theme park, having fallen in love with the actor who plays Jesus in one of the exhibits. These are powerful stories told by a strong voice and written with vivid precision, leaving readers wondering what happens to the characters after their stories end.
From Rob Cline, “Tales of Longing,” Cedar Rapids Gazette:
The collection . . . is lovely from beginning to end. While the pining for change links her stories, Urban employs different tones and forms to create a collection that offers readers variation on the through line. Her characters, in even the briefest of the stories, are fully realized, their hopes, fears, and disappointments vital on the page.
Urban leavens the heartbreak of her stories with flashes of humor, even when characters are at their lowest point. . . A Lesson in Manners is the work of a sure-handed storyteller with insight into the heart and its deepest desires.
Judge Jacob M. Appel, author of The Biology of Luck, Scouting for the Reaper, The Magic Laundry, and The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, wrote of the collection:
“Great” storytellers are as striking as they are rare, and what usually sets one apart is a voice that announces the author as an important, distinctive presence on the literary scene. Only a few pages into A Lesson in Manners, I realized Misty Urban had such a voice.
A Lesson in Manners serves up a panoramic view of the American experience—stories that vary considerably in technique and tone, yet all display the author’s vibrant imagination and keen eye for emotional truth. Some of the stories harness the inventive techniques of postmodernism, such as “Sally”, where we discover that, while we have been engrossed in the life of the title character, “the real story has been going on across the street.” Others serve up realism at its starkest, like the exploration of a wife’s financial infidelity in “Trying to Find a Corndog in Tompkins County.” From a co-ed’s encounter with cancer to a tale of grief and recovery set against the political dynamics of an alternative treatment center in suburban Illinois, Urban’s stories lead us into worlds that are unfamiliar, yet somehow recognizable in their parallels to our own. Most of all, what sets these stories apart is their deep authenticity. At every turn, one senses the author’s compassion for her subjects, and the more she cares, the more we feel ourselves caring as well.
Infused with crystalline language reminiscent of Bobbie Ann Mason and Ann Beattie, and a narrative playfulness recalling Donald Barthelme and John Barth, these stories bring us something truly not seen before in American literature. A Lesson in Manners is an extraordinary collection that distills the lives of ordinary people—refreshing, compelling, and moving.
Table of Contents
“A Lesson in Manners”
First published in Quarterly West 59. Winner of the 2004 Writers @ Work Award for fiction
One day she notices it: about the size of a fortune cookie, a hard lump in her side underneath the skin. Best not to think about it, all those squishy organs in there with their unaccountable functions. Let it drift around her innards, float away.
“The Memoirs of Sam Wesson”
First published in Indiana Review 27. Winner of the 2005 Indiana Review fiction prize
I’m Sam Wesson. You may have heard of me; I’m known in Torrentown and some parts around. In fact, I was featured on KTRY’s folk hour a couple of Saturdays ago.
Sally went to the store, I say.
Who is this Sally, you ask, and why should I be interested in her purchasing habits?
“Trying to Find a Corndog in Tompkins County”
First published in New Letters 73.2. First place, Alexander Cappon Award for Fiction. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
An ivory-billed woodpecker had been sighted in the Big Woods, where part of the Mississippi Delta still stretched its bottomland hardwood into Alabama. A bird thought extinct, invisible for sixty years. It was enough to haunt the dreams.
And, Dacey still hadn’t told Steve about the money.
“Still Life With Dog”
First published in Blackbird 5.1
The dog leapt out at her that afternoon so quickly that it took Andrea by surprise. Andrea had been the one to insist on going to see the new exhibit at the Walker. They wandered through the broad white rooms together, Dylan’s hand pressed into her shoulder, his fingers holding her like a warning. He was remarking on the composition of a Van Gogh, which was code, as were all his statements these days, for “Why won’t you say you love me?”
First published in Front Range Review
Every Sunday night she comes into the supermarket. She wears a black baseball cap championing Brazil in the 2006 World Cup. She has to come through my line because I’m the only checker there on Sundays, every Sunday, sure as dinner at grandma’s house. I look at the hat so I can look at her face without staring; I don’t want to be the creepy guy who stares.
“Welcome to the Holy Land”
First published in Roanoke Review XXXIII. Honorable mention in the 2007 fiction contest
I’m in love with Jesus. He works at the Second Kingdom theme park in Tampa, Florida, just past the outlet mall off interstates 4 and 75.
“The Keeping of the Counts”
Winner of The Atlantic Monthly’s student prize for fiction. First published in Talking River 29
In school, Helen always did well in math—math, the universal language. She harbors a secret and feral love for the order of numbers, their logical translations, their illusion of control.
The bonsai is not a type of tree, understand, but the art of growing a normal tree in a confined space. The bonsai artist works with the tree to find its perfect shape and expression.
Semifinalist for the Cincinnati Review 2014 fiction contest
After Lou died, Caro developed motion sickness. She couldn’t fly. She couldn’t drive. She couldn’t ride the bus. She dropped the sailing team and left school and then withdrew from every part of the life she had built, sold her car, hung her bike at the back of the family garage, left her boat under canvas in its slip at the marina like a large parakeet indefinitely asleep.