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Antonya Nelson photo by Erich Schlegel, Dallas Morning News BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Real Facts of Life BY EMILY RAPP Some Fun By Antonya Nelson Scribner 256 pages, $22 In Antonya Nelson’s novella Some Fun, a mother instructs her teenage daughter in the facts of life: “There is no equal relationship. Either you love him better or he loves you better. Either you’re getting dumped or doing the dumping… The other fact is: everyone has a secret life. It’s the only thing you absolutely have to hang on to. Someone’s always trying to get at your secret life. Don’t let them. Those are the real facts.” No matter their age, socio-economic circumstance, or geographical locationeach character in the latest collection from Nelson, a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, has a secret life that routinely eclipses the life they long to create or the life society might choose for them. It is this secret existence that both sustains and destroys, from a young girl’s stealing habit and her first impulsive sexual experience in Some Fun; to a woman’s addiction to alcohol and a family secret in “Heart Shaped Rock;” to an artist’s odd but healing relationship with a homeless young woman in “Eminent Domain;” to a teenage boy who believes he is guided by his dead mother’s ghost in “Flesh Tone.” Nelson’s unlikely heroes and heroines often get stuck in the mess of their secret lives and remain there, flailingbut not unaware and not entirely unhappy. When teaching her son the facts of life, a mother is careful to remind him “that heartbreak was part of the package.” In this collection, there is plenty to be had. Throughout this brilliantly written book, Nelson communicates this: In these dull, depressed, terrible, and sometimes unremarkable moments in our secret lives, we are most human, most alive, and most honest about the truththe factsof life. Although her characters occasionally break out of their carefully constructed private worlds, most retreat inside the restricting walls they’ve createdout of habit, comfort, and even a strange kind of love. They get close to their demons and look them in the eye, and choose to live with them rather then send them away. In “Dick,” Ann Ponders, a woman in her mid-40s, is moving her family from “the toxic beauty” of Los Angeles to Colorado. While Ann clings to her 12-year-old son Cole, he is busy clinging to other things: in this case, Dick, a boy from “the blue-collar world of his father, who installed heaters and cookers in addition to breeding dogs.” Cole’s attachment to his slightly off-putting friend threatens his mother’s hold on him. When Dick disappears one day and never returns, an inconsolable Cole assumes that Dick simply lost his desire to live. Together with Cole, Ann feels the loss of her son’s innocence, an innocence that had sustained her in a dull, passionless marriage. “Had Cole arrived at his insight concerning Dick because he shared the opinion of turning twelve, because he didn’t find life, anymore, all that worthwhile? Ann couldn’t bear to think so; she squeezed her eyes shut and hopedit seemed a weak thing, hope, and it was all she hadwith all her heart not.” Ann realizes that Cole has become more of a grown-up when he has insights that he cannot share with anyone elsehis tormented thoughts, his secrets, are his alone. In all these stories, the characters ruminate over the departure of loved ones, who evolve, separate, or die, as with Evan’s mother in “Flesh Tone.” For all of Nelson’s biting prose and her ability to render a boy’s thoughts of suicide darkly humorous \(“He looked nonchalantly upon railroad tracks and busy intersections, curious about his fate before the pill bottles in the medicine 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 22, 2006