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Jody Hobbs Hesler What Makes You Think You're Supposed to Feel Better

The World Could Swallow You Whole: Jody Hobbs Hesler’s What Makes You Think You’re Supposed to Feel Better

Robert Crooke

What Makes You Think You're Supposed to Feel Better
Jody Hobbs Hesler
Cornerstone Press, October 2023


ach story in Jody Hobbs Hesler’s powerful debut collection turns on the realization of an unexpected truth. Sometimes blunt, more often subtle, these moments of existential revelation alter her characters’ lives without overt dramatics. It is more a case of human nature being revealed in lives and relationships that are plagued by misconceptions.

We meet parents who don’t get it, and children who know it all. Resentful wives and resentful husbands. Damaged people compelled to inflict their wounds on others. Willful people who have everything they want, but don’t want it anymore. Battered wives confused and embarrassed by their children’s violent outbursts. Shy young men whose lonely lives are lifted by a kind word about the weather from a woman passing by.

Though set with minimalist skill in various Virginia locales, Hesler’s tales belong to a classical tradition—universal and timeless in its ironic vision of human fate—with echoes of Alice Munro and Raymond Carver.

In a brief story entitled “No Good,” a dissatisfied 9th grade girl takes an ill-advised walk into the woods with an older boy and discovers a real world more frightening than the one her mother keeps warning her about. In “Alone” a small-town hermit’s suicide inspires a neighboring wife and mother to test the limits of her own secret longing for solitude. And in “Sorry Enough” a newly sober man, having served his prison sentence for severely injuring a woman while he was drunk, attempts a thoughtless form of restitution and learns that sobriety guarantees nothing but a chance to forgive yourself by confronting who you are.

The stories about relationships between adult children and their aging parents are especially well done. In “Harmonie,” Martin and Vanessa, a comfortable and apparently happy older couple, wait in their favorite local restaurant for their daughter Julia—a middle school music teacher—to arrive from her home in distant Boston. Vanessa aches with a sorrow that has curdled into resentment over her inability to bear more than one child. And it is quickly clear that this grievance has caused the daughter she does have to keep her distance.

Having only one child made their empty nest so definitive, and as time yawned forward, the emptiness seemed to grow. Julia’s visit home without actually coming home only dramatized their obsolescence.

Tension mounts as Julia arrives and shares a declaration of personal freedom—her decision to leave teaching entirely and travel the club-circuit in Boston and beyond as lead singer in a musical group. Vanessa suggests that Julia should maintain her teaching certificate, so she can return to an orderly life once this crazy music thing has run its course. But there will be no teaching certificate, Julia informs them; she doubts the band will even stay in the United States.

When dinner is over, and Julia abruptly leaves, Martin can’t decide whether to follow her down the street or remain at the table with his disoriented wife, whose silent ruminations reveal an unconvincing maternal disquiet.

Of course Julia had a right to do as she pleased, just like Martin said. That didn’t make it easy to watch. No matter how beautiful, how rare you were, the world could swallow you whole.

Parental misconceptions and generational distancing also animate “The Secret Life of Otto and Hilda.” Otto Augsburg is a successful real estate investor who believes he is correct in most things because of his business acumen. He knows what most Americans want, and assumes all human relationships are transactions.

His daughter Marta, a third year student at the University of Virginia, embodies what Otto considers a German propensity for timeliness and propriety, which has “skipped” him.

She was stern and precise in her habits, particularly as they regarded spending time with him. He was always looking for a way around her reserve.

And in his latest effort to approach Marta, he cajoles a convenience store clerk into selling him a life-sized M&M figure from a store display. But when Otto gets the M&M figure to his daughter’s campus apartment, her reaction isn’t good.

Marta didn’t even smile.

“I thought you’d like it.” Otto could hear the sadness in his own words.

“You thought I’d like a giant M&M?”

“I did, really.”

After recalling several prior instances in which her father had publicly embarrassed her, and himself, and had made things worse by offering money to resolve the situations, Marta asks him to leave so she can finish a paper due the next day.

“That’s why I always ask you to call before you come by. I don’t have time for random visits.”

Sometime later, Otto invites Marta to lunch but, surprisingly, takes her to a taco truck parked near his luxury apartment. The gift he has brought this time is a simple bag of Necco wafers—a great favorite of Marta’s since childhood. And they head to a nearby railroad track to sit and have their lunch and candy together. This unexpectedly simple date finally does reach Marta. But misconceptions die slowly, and Otto worries about finding another cute adventure to charm his daughter next time.

. . . to make her feel the way she wanted to feel when she was with him.

In “Trespassing,” set in the mid-1950s, a perceptive high school girl realizes a connection between the tensions of her awakening sexuality, and the racial tensions she observes during a visit to a store in the Black section of town. And in “Regular English,” a beautiful story of class reconciliation and personal growth, two 20-something girls working as motel maids learn what life is from each other.

In this brilliant debut, especially in her stories about women coming into possession of themselves, Hesler demonstrates the ironic understanding of humanity, the deep compassion, and the literary skill of a serious, new fiction writer.


Robert Crooke