Published by Snake Nation Press in October 2022, Nancy Ludmerer’s debut collection of short stories in Collateral Damage: 48 Stories is a lesson in economy, a master class in saying just enough—about both damage by others and at our own hands, as well as the subsequent attempts to repair, though the fault lines along which damage stops and repair begins are never clearly marked.
The forty-eight stories offer revelations that refuse to be spoken aloud or articulated explicitly. For instance, in “Hide-and-Seek,” infidelity is observed through the eyes of a young boy, who can only report to his mother the “wild cats” he saw the night before. “Reading, Writing, Arithmetic” is a searing depiction of abuse kept tightly lidded. In “Complicity,” the ache to scream out the truth reaches a fever pitch. The narrator, knowing a young girl may need help, wonders: “But what about how small he made me feel, how frivolous my concerns, how baseless my accusations?” When the story ends, nothing has changed about the narrator’s circumstances: her husband shouts for apple cake and will continue to prey on young girls. Still, Ludmerer slips in a tiny foothold of resistance, a refusal to continue feigning obliviousness, by having the narrator cut her finger and letting the blood “swirl into the batter.” “Tiffy” yanks us away at the last second, before we know how the narrator reacts to the meaning of a name.
Ludmerer also probes the edges where relationships fray. “After the Wedding” unravels a new marriage in less than a page, highlighting Ludmerer’s talent in crafting unforgettable last sentences. The story begins innocently enough about new beginnings, until, in the “moon-licked darkness,” the narrator faces a reminder that some things never fully leave us. Similarly, in “Adventureland,” the signs of the doomed relationship are present from the start, only for the last scene, “the sound of Nicky’s weeping, the sound of Clay starting the engine before they even reached him,” to confirm the narrator’s fears. Juxtaposed with “After the Wedding” is “St. Malo,” spotlighting how, in the husband’s mad dash to appear heroic in the eyes of strangers, as well as to future listeners of an account of the incident, his careless remark to his wife leaves her desire to be seen and recognized painfully exposed.
In her stories, Ludmerer invites the reader’s introspection through her characters as they find awareness and humility. In “Do You Remember Me?”, the narrator weighs, then declines, an opportunity to help an old acquaintance. The story is just over a page but leaves a stark impression as Ludmerer explores the ability to recognize our own shortcomings. Along the same vein, “Bar Mitzvah” is an illuminating single paragraph, where the “wicked stepmother,” the “woman who had wrecked our lives ten years earlier,” transforms into something else entirely. The intensity builds and ebbs in an eyeblink, enough for Ludmerer to demonstrate how “for everything there is a purpose under heaven.”
My first exposure to Ludmerer’s skill in blending humor and tragedy, in sharp, honest dialogue, in ballooning the tiny, in-between moments of daily life, was “Hal’s Sleep Showroom,” when it was originally published in Jellyfish Review. In its opening paragraphs, the story sets the course of a couple trying to find the perfect mattress. The options and configurations are dizzyingly varied. Halfway through, the underbelly of the story is revealed, and the search for “the plushest, firmest, coolest, best-in-class, pressure-relieving mattress” takes on new meaning. Even on the third and fourth reading, the sentence, “It’s a big decision,” lands like a blow to the sternum, a blow that continues to radiate through the rest of the story. Yet, as the couple curls together on yet another mattress to potentially reject, the story finishes on a tone of tenderness.
Often, the shortest stories are the hardest to write, requiring restraint and discipline, as well as immense trust in the reader to understand what is unspoken. Ludmerer’s collection features several stories clocking in at half a page or less, a length that calls for each word and line to be savored. The titular “Collateral Damage” about a literal fly on the wall lends itself to multiple interpretations about marital strife and the wounds sustained by those on the sideline. “At the Pool Party for My Niece’s Graduation from Middle School” is told from an adult’s perspective, yet contains familiar strains of adolescent yearning and agony. “Ski In/Ski Out” unspools in one breathless sentence a mother’s decision about whether to allow her teenage son to go on a ski trip. The story focuses not so much on the ski trip but rather on all the “unrelated reasons” for why the trip does not end up happening. “Cara Cara” gives a succinct meditation on grief that lingers well after the page is turned.
A hallmark of Ludmerer’s storytelling is grappling with memory, especially how the past rears its head unexpectedly, and how we wish we could have done things differently if given the chance to do it all again. In “Dream Job,” an executive working in career placement recalls one particularly tragic hire. Interspersed throughout the story are references to life continuing as normal (an office party about to begin, the commute through Grand Central), making Alice’s memories of the young woman working at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11 seem dreamlike and surreal. Reading the story, I felt a jarring sense of deja-vu, thinking back to my own first day at a corporate law firm in midtown Manhattan. I had no idea what was in store for me, how I might be required to “present something different—even if it meant being untrue to one’s own self.” (Incidentally, this same law firm was where I overlapped with Ludmerer for a few years.)
In Collateral Damage: 48 Stories, Ludmerer has fashioned a collection of stories that feel deeply lived-in and universally resonant. From the photographer at a bar mitzvah nursing grudges to an heirloom wineglass serving one last purpose at a wedding, the stories breathe meaning into small moments that Ludmerer inspects with great sensitivity. It’s this keen eye that makes her stories so powerful on the first reading, and that also demands multiple readings for the hidden layers to surface.
Publisher: Snake Nation Press
Publication Date: October 10, 2022
Reviewed by Joy Guo