rev. of Breathe Something Nice by Emily Hammond

Issue #73
Fall 1997

Breathe Something Nice 
Stories by Emily Hammond. Univ. of Nevada, $13.00 paper. Reviewed by Fred Leebron.

There are no quiet stories in
Breathe Something Nice, Emily Hammond’s first collection of fiction. In a series of ambitious evocations, Hammond demonstrates fresh wit and a fine irony. Most remarkable, though, is her willingness to keep opening up the stories to further possibilities, rather than shutting them down through resolution. These nine stories will linger in the reader’s mind long after the last page has been turned.

In the title story, Wanda is a twenty-year-old college student stuck with her classmates in volunteering at a youth detention facility. But unlike the other students, Wanda allows herself to be taken in by John, an ominous and ultimately evil inmate. Wanda’s perceptions are interlaced by a kind of testimony from Helena, a classmate, who concludes, “if I had to be stuck in a drainpipe with one of these guys, it’d be any one of them and not him.” Wanda and John engage in public sex, in a scene that wonderfully reveals the naïveté and politeness of both the inmates and the classmates, and then Wanda helps John break out in violent fashion. The story doesn’t stop there, but pursues Wanda’s future long after John has left her by the side of the road with his final instructions: “Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Again. Keep breathing, faster now. Imagine something something nice.” Like most of the stories in the collection, “Breathe Something Nice” hinges on the sexual promiscuity and
social precocity of a young woman brash enough to do what she wants and say what she thinks.

In “Wicked,” the complexity of the dysfunctional family dynamic is captured precisely in the opening line: “My stepsister is my older brother’s ex-girlfriend.” Frances, the fifteen-year-old narrator, is on her parents’ Hawaiian honeymoon with her two brothers and her new stepsister and stepbrother. The stepmother, Margaret Ann, thinks “housekeeping was on par with running the country: full of important lessons about morality and ingenuity and good old-fashioned sense.” Frances gets into hot water by hooking up with Roger, “the first cute boy who ever talked to me of his own volition . . . I had a neck like a water heater.” When her father confronts her, all that is submerged comes to the surface. “Tell Margaret Ann,” Frances says, “that her own son hates her. It’s all he talks about, how he hates his mother. Another thing: do you know the walls in your room are too thin? Every night we have to listen to you.” The story seems it will end with the breakdown of this honeymoon, but it then continues to
embrace the lives of the characters long after the failure of the marriage.

Other stories also focus on vacations doomed to failure. “The San Juans Are Beautiful” follows Nance, a thirty-year-old woman, on a Pacific Northwest geriatric cruise with Ellie, her eighty-five-year-old benefactor, “amid the bald-pated gentlemen, age spots on their heads like maps of the Old World, and their scarved wives, tiny and dressed in white jackets with gold buttons, and Keds that looked too large.” Throughout the voyage, Nance awaits some kind of truth or epiphany, be it refrigerator sex with the cruise MC, or facts about Ellie’s sister’s mysterious death. In “Polaroid,” Melissa, a nastily thin eighteen-year-old girl trapped on a trip to Solvang, California, with her overweight mother and father and brother, must decide exactly how much her blubbery mother means to her: “When I was younger I believed my real parents were dark and handsome foreigners who . . . left me with those people, in the care of this big waddling woman who somehow got it in her head that she was my mother. She fed and
clothed me and enrolled me in Brownies and Girl Scouts and clapped over every miserable little thing I did.”

Breathe Something Nice is populated by such conflicted characters, witnessing and helping to worsen a kind of misery, only to find that what awaits them at the end is a better understanding of what it is that they have been through and survived. It is a compelling and remarkably complete collection.

Fred Leebron’s first novel, Out West,
was recently released in paperback by Harcourt Brace/Harvest. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology.
He teaches at Gettysburg College.