The Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W 

Summer  2002

Slow Monkeys and other stories by Jim Nichols

Slow Monkeys
and other stories

Jim Nichols
Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon U. Press 
Publication date: 10/31/2002
164 pp.  $15.95


Be aware: you’ll find no action heroes or epic conflicts in Slow Monkeys, a first collection from award-winning short story writer Jim Nichols. You won’t come across any wily detectives or inscrutable medical examiners, any CIA agents or conniving society mavens. In short, you’ll discover few of the suspects who inhabit the larger part of modern commercial fiction. Instead, Nichols levels his casual but penetrating scope on the less trodden world of trailer parks and migrant fruit workers, of bent marriages and blue-collar disillusion. But in this thrill-a-minute, Nike/Playstation/Tommy Hilfiger world, who wants to read about the troubles of ordinary Joes and Janes? Right?

Wrong. You want to read this book. Nichols voice comes clean and eerie as a loon call on a simple lake of autumn, thrusting even the most bored and ironic reader into that most epiphanic of environs—the real world. While this reviewer could hardly be described as a fan of relative minimalism, Nichols has a subtlety and style that can’t help but win your appreciation. His language flows with assurance, firmly in the familiar but seldom stooping to dialect or the outright colloquial. His Hemingwayesque simplicity of phrase belies a deep interest in the rhythm and interaction of line and phrase. As a result of strong characterization and story, this sense of scansion is hardly noticeable on a first run-through, but upon subsequent or close examination, the lines emit a nearly poetic feel, like a concentricity of ripples on one of Nichols’s Maine ponds, each expanding and accentuating the one before. This deep attention to craft is also evident in his controlled use of symbol. An ancient outboard motor, coins of ambiguous luck, dead fish, a stolen football: all these symbols could come across as contrived or labored in the hands of a less accomplished artisan but Nichols employs them with a light yet resolute touch, making the narrative resonate with aptness, substance and power.

Knowing that the most universal conflicts have little to do with political machinations or jewel heists, Nichols forces us to gaze upon the complexity of the human drama, where the simple wonder of a child keeps a lost man from the abyss; where in the shattered knee of a former high school football star we tease out the true marrow and eventuality of American dreams; where among tip-ups and ice shanties, closeted tendencies are not discussed openly but grunted at—or better yet, ignored—over a cold beer; where, everyday, families and individual souls bend, break, and are made whole again by the subtle heroism of diminished pride or lowered expectation. These commonplace heroes don’t save the globe or perform superhuman feats, but they do save those around them from utter despair and ruin with tight-lipped compassion or a simple determination to persevere. Slow Monkeys is crammed with distinctly American characters, and with his perfect apprehension and appreciation of human frailty, Jim Nichols comes across as nothing less than the broad authentic voice of America.

– CAW –