Unaccompanied Minors by Alden Jones (New American Press, 2013) is a short story collection. Inside, there are seven stories. Unlike many fiction collections, Jones waves her wand and does some of the best world building I’ve ever encountered in short fiction. No piece was noticeably weaker than another, no piece failed to pull its weight. These stories often touch on themes of sexual orientation and the fairly simplistic exteriors of adolescents who have dark interiors. A few of the stories are set in Costa Rica.
Frequently, there is a lot going on inside of a narrator that the reader is privy to, but the other characters never see. In “Thirty Seconds,” the narrator starts the story like this: “The fact that Johnny Kirk is dead has little to do with me.” She did all the correct things for a babysitter (“No one ever swallowed pennies or ate the crayons”) but the most incorrect thing–the death of one of her charges–did happen. It’s interesting to think how the narrator has reconciled that she has no fault in the death of the boy because she did the regular things, even if the irregular happened. Her detachment, her lack of agony over a little boy’s death (he was kind of an asshole, she thinks), was scary to me.
In “Heathens,” a white woman in her early 20s watches as church groups bus in those on mission trips to her town in Costa Rica. The narrator has only been there a year, but she fits in with the environment and sought it out to escape people like Molly, a blond girl on a mission trip who eagerly takes (mostly bad–and on purpose) advice from the narrator. The narrator hates Molly and her church and the way Molly is so American with her capitalist, eye-rolling, I-only-need-English attitude, but the narrator also wants to give Molly another chance because she is a teenager. The narrator thinks:
I want you [Molly] to know more than what you were spoonfed. I see the way you look at the boys, the way you want to flirt with them. I know what you want from them, even if you don’t. When I hear those hymns floating towards me in the schoolyard, your voice stands out, and I hear it and I think: That’s Molly. You are different from them, the ones who look at me with such shock when I tell them, “As far as I can see it, Jesus doesn’t love me. Jesus doesn’t even know me.”
You’re the only one who looks at me with eyes that sparkle.
But I can’t just tell you this. If I am going to get you before you’re gone, I can’t just reach into the water and pull you out–you’ll swim away. I have to bait you right, and I have to wait. This is all okay. I’ve learned, since I’ve been in Costa Rica, how to be very, very patient.
I can just watch the wheels turn in this person’s head as she decides she’s going to teach a rich white girl a lesson–not because the narrator is mean–but because it means something to her. On the outside, the narrator is simply “Teacher” to the natives and a person viewed as “safe” to the missionaries (because the narrator is white).
It is no mistake that Molly is beautiful. Jones brings the theme of beauty into several of her stories. In “Freaks,” beauty is not what you might expect but absolutely makes sense; sometimes it is extreme thinness, other times it is confidence. “FLEE” reveals that beauty is being so strong and then having a small flaw. One narrator, in “Sin Alley,” reveals what beauty means to him:
No matter what anyone had said, did say, would say, Martin was a beauty, and when you believed in beauty as much as Oscar did, you could not help associating it with goodness.
The ever-changing definition of beautiful gives each character a different personality, as what one person finds beautiful another would find hideous. The characters seem to be mining for goodness and beauty and able to find it in small doses. Beauty may be withholding affection, beauty may be a crack, beauty may be a conscious choice.
I really like the way the author twists an idea to change how it’s usually presented to people. In “Shelter,” the narrator, Angel, has essentially run away with a lesbian named Spike. When they realize it’s too cold to camp, they end up in a homeless shelter. Late at night, Angel thinks, “I can feel Spike using all her might not to fidget, and my brain’s all clear, way too clear for me to handle, much less sleep, so I say Spikey, let’s hit the road, let’s drive all night until the 7-11 decides it’s Monday and get ourselves a six-pack.” Instead of saying “we have to wait to get beer because it’s not available for sale right now in this state according to the law,” she marks time by when a 7-11 deems it a new day.
Here’s another one: “I have this little girl that I take care of now. Erika, and only today did she snag on me and make me think that my daughter would have been just her size by now.” Instead of saying that she cares for Erika, Jones writes, “snag on me,” which is unintentional and often annoying to the person it happens to. Later, a lost tooth is a “disposable child-bone.” The way Jones flips simple ideas on their heads and makes them new was sheer pleasure for me. I was reminded of the artist David Hockney who draws one chair from every angle, which results in an odd final picture; you can tell the image is a chair, but you’re forced to look at it in new ways.
Alden Jones’s collection was incredibly immersive. Some moments were so visceral, such as a character heaving deep breaths while climbing a mountain, but pretending that she isn’t out of breath so she doesn’t seem weak, which only makes her breathe harder. Each story builds a new and unforgettable world that I could see and experience, and each character had an emotional depth that made me worry about each and every one of them. I also felt helpless, scared, and ignorant. For an author to make me feel like I’m supposed to do something for fake people…that’s a skill for sure.