“Sorrowful” might be one word you’d use to describe Scott Nadelson’s new story collection The Fourth Corner of the World. Another might be “hilarious.” The characters are lonely and hopeless, but they are also unwitting comics. In each story, the protagonist, usually a Jewish man, stands on the precipice of madness or loss, and often I couldn’t help but laugh. The story of Yankel Kolm — in which a young Jewish boy who stumbles upon a threesome between his friends in a utopic Oregon colony in the 1880s — is emblematic of Nadelson’s tastes: tragic-yet-hilarious tales suffused with memory, minor internal strife, and the tragi-comic conundrum of being attracted to the things that hurt us.
I have always thought of Nadelson as a memoirist who prefers to write fiction. Many of these stories, most of which have been previously published, reflect his own past. Though many are set in disparate times and places — Paris in 1921, Helsinki in the aftermath of WWII, New Jersey in 1989 — the characters are often from his childhood in New Jersey or his current home in Oregon. Some of his characters experience heartbreak on par with that depicted in his non-fiction essay collection, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress, which was published in 2013. A few of these stories are even in first-person (those characters have the initials of “S.N.”), a sign that no matter which story Nadelson chooses to take on, he’s building a world through the filter of his own experiences, even more than a fiction writer is typically forced to. It’s fitting then that the book’s epigraph borrows from Richard Hell: “If you wear a mask long enough it becomes your face.”
In one story, entitled “Temporary Salvation,” a New Jersey boy in falls for an emotionally unavailable girl in Portland. Before reading, I would have shrugged if someone were to describe the angsty-lonely boy character. The story has been told countless times, to the extent that it sounds like the premise of more than a few TV episodes starring some Hollywood sad boy. “Temporary Salvation,” though, is better than its premise. Nadelson carefully studies the boy’s internal life, his thoughts, the limits of his understanding. The way he’s stunted as a thinker are put on display. When his romantic interest cries at the end, he realizes perhaps for the first time that sadness is not always abstract like his. “Her sadness wasn’t a vague, roving one like mine, but particular, concrete, something I wasn’t close to understanding.”
It was after reading “Temporary Salvation” that my initial reading of The Fourth Corner of the World began to expand. The characters were lonely and sad, but they were also on the precipice of discovery. Nadelson’s sensibility is a romantic one: his charaacters are romantics, and it’s a romantic inclination that guides this book. Not in a boy-meets-girl way, but rather that they perceive the world as a kind of idealized version of itself. It’s difficult not to fall in love with the main character in “Temporary Salvation.” The story isn’t so much about his discovery — a person can have sorrow that isn’t abstract and oppressive — but instead about his realization that the world is much larger, the expanse of what is possible is much greater, than he initially imagined. It’s fascinating to see the boy in “Temporary Salvation” arrive at this seemingly distant place from where he started out. Each story arrives at this discovery, in its own way which makes these moments — which might as well be called the moment when the character grows up — the uniting theme of this collection.
The Fourth Corner of the World’s stories are not organized in any detectable way, and yet they each clearly approach this same idea, about discovery and the vastness of potential. How leaving home and entering the world — even if that means a living room in New Jersey — can be the first step toward a kind of new awareness. In “The Prize,” Elena Warshavsky travels to Helsinki in the aftermath of WWII to raise money for the grandiose vision of Israel imposed by her husband who lives a distant life. There isn’t a single, stunning moment when Elena realizes the true purpose of her visit; instead, the realization happens slowly, over a walk through the frigid night with this strange man. She discovers that she’s been solicited for sex as a reward for a donation to Israel, an arrangement no doubt put in place by her husband. The discovery is arrived at slowly, tragically, in a pointed study of grief:
This is a better fate than so many others, she tells herself, and tries once more to envision the bright desert beside a blue sea, her feet in warm water, Grish [her husband] lying on the sand, his eyes set on her and nothing else. But the image is as hazy and fleeting as it has always been, less substantial than that of the crowded house on Rudnicka Street, or of London full of smoke and rubble.
This story, unlike Nadelson’s usual work, is far from funny. This is where I struggled with this book. To place Elena alongside the sad boy from New Jersey seemed wrong, unfair. Perhaps that is the problem with a collection that spans more than century, with each character lives with very different circumstances. Everyone has struggles, but not all struggles are related, or created equal. Elena and the boy from New Jersey both have maimed relationships, dashed-hopes, and jaded vision of the future, but that hardly seems enough. The collection, published the day before Valentine’s Day, is arranged into twelve stories, like the numbers on analogue clock or the months in a year, perhaps indicating some kind of statement about time or growing up.
In the book’s final story, Nadelson’s “I” character walks with his newborn daughter and reflects on the death of a friend, and we get also a study of Chekov’s short story entitled “Grief.” In the classic story, which is set in Russian snowfall, a sleigh-driver is trying to tell passengers about his son who just died, but they don’t want to listen. I read Chekov’s story after reading The Fourth Corner of the World. What stood out to me was the setting, how — under the spell of grief — the sleigh-driver seemed nearly invisible to his passengers. He was described as ghost-like, unrecognizable, almost not there. He is not so much a person as a shadow, a haunting image floating through a cold city.
This, in essence, is how Nadelson’s collection comes together. These are all people who are overlooked and trying to be seen. These are stories about grief, and how, in the thick fog of emotion, a person can nearly vanish.