PNW Review Series – Bad Kansas

Cover of Bad Kansas: Stories; blue sky, clouds, grasshopper bottom left

Washington State resident, Becky Mandelbaum’s Kansas-bred collection sets a stage of average people having unusual encounters that shines a sweeping spotlight on deeper, unspoken truths. Not unlike those dark terrors that pop up in dreams or at 2AM, which the sun promptly blinds us to again come morning.

Each of the eleven shorts ends on a ledge, and still–if they peer down into their own fragile core–the reader knows what comes next, like a choice cut in a film. In life, drama has to play out but here Mandelbaum exercises the wisdom of omission again and again.

Mandelbaum’s apparent trust in her audience may come from the universal themes at work in Bad Kansas (pub. 2017): wrong place, wrong time; backwards ideas of “more;” abandoned selves; loss of love, unrequited. The author certainly can’t be held responsible for the added associations we may make. 

Like how a Bellinghamster might read “The House on Alabama Street” and envision our central hill instead of an eyeful of prairie. Another reader may have a history with T-bone steak hands or the way Barbie climbs inside and stays. Over the sound of vacuum cleaners and puberty, “Stupid Girls” could bring to mind Mandelbaum’s “Say Uncle” featured in One Story’s October 2019 release. Whatever connections are made, everyone can and will find delight for themselves within this humorous, disquieting collection.

After a deluge of people-problems, I am curious to see if Mandelbaum’s full length fiction follow-up–The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals, pub. 2020–focuses more on fauna friction. I guess I’ll have to stop by my local bookshop and grab a copy to find out. I encourage you to do the same.

Bad Kansas received the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

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