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Thursday, December 1, 2022

Book Review: ‘Get ’Em Young, Treat ’Em Tough, Tell ’Em Nothing,’ by Robin McLean

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In the title story of Robin McLean’s taut and propulsive new collection, “Get ’Em Young, Treat ’Em Tough, Tell ’Em Nothing,” the lonely yet upbeat Private Martin tours the frigid terrain around his compound and finds life: “The tundra was teeming. The plants were small, even tiny, yes, but bursting in color … as if the roots knew time was short, said, so let’s get going, and did.”

One might say the same for the characters in this book; circumstances are rough, even dire, and people are worn out, angry, smart and stubbornly, vigorously alive. Even the man literally hanging off the edge of a cliff in “Cliff Ordeal” ruminates on love and lust while he hopes to be rescued. Really, everyone here is on the edge of some kind of cliff, and McLean unsentimentally renders their various precipices with incredible energy and humor.

It speaks to the tone and dark comedy of this collection that one character, after her spouse assaults her with a machete, begins to talk up Canada to him as if she were a travel agent, imploring him to just leave. He won’t. Marital issues ensue. In “True Carnivores,” a woman’s yearning to be a mother leads her to kidnap her nephew, and the reader feels a chill as we see the tight hold she has on his future. And yet — she also shows him a lot of America and adventure and cool costumes. It’s grotesque, morally unsettling and entertaining, all at once.

A tourist at a German castle finds herself drawn into a danger she can’t help gleefully describing to herself, barely aware of her own complicity — not unlike the young white man in “Big Black Man” whose cringey self-deception, in what seems like a nod to Flannery O’Connor’s classic “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” blocks his attempts to connect to two Black girls hiding from a sinister car. Is he aware of their fear and his racism? Not at all. Is McLean? Definitely. She holds each character up to the bright interrogatory light of her observations.

Her prose moves with muscle and rhythm, the dialogue swift and captivating. Story lines occasionally opt — some more successfully than others — for a dreamlike space that collapses time and expands metaphor. If at times the endings don’t quite develop the movement of certain stories as much as they could, then it’s the sentence-by-sentence motor that pushes us forward. One feels a kind of productive impatience in the lean and animated phrasing, as she cuts away the fluff.

In all these settings, whether we’re touring Niagara or building a home in Alaska, nature is ever-present, but it won’t redeem us either: The “east glowed with a cold, bored sun” and sex is “an eight-legged animal, thumping thumping” and dogs “bared their teeth and chewed their legs to raw skin.” That said, there is a curious solace in settling into a worldview by a writer who so refuses to unsharpen her vision, whose investment is in the clarity and freshness of the imagery and an honest portrayal of our craven impulses. McLean keeps us guessing about whom to root for and when, swerving her stories and reshaping our sympathies in a paragraph. Perhaps it comes back to those tundra plants after all, and to Private Martin, one of the more sympathetic and sad figures in the book, who longs to be a botanist and reminds us to notice — and in the noticing, pay respect to — this insistence on being.

Aimee Bender’s most recent book is the novel “The Butterfly Lampshade.”

GET ’EM YOUNG, TREAT ’EM TOUGH, TELL ’EM NOTHING | By Robin McLean | 242 pp. | And Other Stories | Paperback, $17.95

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