One moment, if it’s the right moment, can define a person entirely. Kirk Nesset”â„¢s stories are set within those pivotal moments and result in vivid characters navigating unique circumstances. Mr. Agreeable, out now from Mammoth Books, is a collection of four-page stories that accomplish what many novels struggle to do in four hundred pages.
Nesset’s stories are an interesting mix of Raymond Carver’s quirky plot shifts and William Trevor’s quiet approach to understanding human suffering. His characters suffer from ordinary life—from supermarkets and bug infestations to more of the unbearable quotidian. This suffering leads to emotional breakdowns and in the wreckage a certain kind of humanity is exposed. His stories are like jam jars. His characters like fireflies. At the end of each tale I felt as though I were holding a container filled with magic light—as though I could show the light to a friend and say, “I always thought they must exist and now look here, a soul.”Â
In the opening story, “Believing in People,”Â a man bribes a stranger to act as his girlfriend in a supermarket to avoid looking single in front of his ex. The stranger, however, uses the situation to humiliate the man. She leaves him saying, “Believing in people will kill you. Take it from me.”Â Between “not believing”Â and “believing”Â are 97 pages of narrative that investigates the gray area—the flux of love—and the need to connect”â€to connect with anything”â€at any cost.
In the story Mr. Destitute the main character uses books to escape life. While Mr. Destitute is homeless, his jacket pockets house books. The books sing, “We can save you.”Â This story comes near the end of the collection and for anyone who relates to Mr. Destitute, packs a heavy emotional wallop. No book, including Mr. Agreeable, can save us. As much as Nesset’s stories seduce a reader into staying with his narratives, the book also invites humanity to reconnect with the world. The book implies words are not enough.
The stories have characters that are psychically fused together. In the book’s title story, Mr. Agreeable depends on the mugger to define his own existence. Mr. Agreeable ends his story facedown in the ground thinking,
It seems you’ve been here forever. You’ve been here in dreams, you believe, in piecemeal visions—even this was foreseen in a way, if not quite clearly foreseeable. You should get up, you suppose, but you feel fine where you are. Sprawling, face in the black fragrant mulch, burrowing, digging in with your fingers, digging in like the wind. You press into the earth. The street grows quiet again. Ear to the ground, you hear plates trembling beneath you, weighty, incomprehensibly huge, aching with age and repeated collision, compelled by what is to agree and agree and agree.
Mr. Agreeable relies on his perpetrator to help him maintain his role as a victim. This is a difficult psychological concept to stand behind—the implication that victims victimize themselves is nervy (maybe even upsetting). However, Nesset eases his reader into difficult territory. He is not writing to shock or offend, he is writing to find light in the darkest of places. His stories highlight how people maintain their daily routine by being their own Mr. So-and-s. Nesset subtly adds complexity to Mr. Agreeable’s character with a rebellion. Mr. Agreeable refuses to get up. He chooses not to be agreeable.
The language of Mr. Agreeable molds the extraordinary into everyday occurrences. The agreeable tone of the book makes a suicide by shark attack seem ordinary—a house taken over by snakes normal—even a healthy relationship can be a “sure, why not”Â in Nesset’s work. The book’s final story “Shallow Water”Â ends with the lines,
I’ll love her, I tell myself—yes I will—though I know this is dangerous business. I am a silly man. Don’t tell me how what feels best eventually hurts the worst, how plunging back into sweet familiar life can leave you higher and drier than before. Don’t tell me, because I’m ready to go it again.
The repeated line “don’t tell me”Â works as a pun on Mr. Agreeable, which is essentially a book telling of “how what feels best eventually hurts the worst.”Â The ending, in many ways, is a reversal of the book’s opening story.
Throughout this fine collection, Nesset shows that pleasure can be found even in the mulch of the earth and that we are all deserving of joy. Nesset shows that beneath our Mr. So-and-so masks are people defying those things, which define them. There is hope in that. Hope is the most difficult thing to write. This book proves Nesset to be a writer of merit and a voice not to be forgotten.