“A Common Person and Other Stories,” by R. M. Kinder

R. M. Kinder

Reviewed by C. D. Albin

At first glance, characters in R. M. Kinder’s A Common Person and Other Stories appear ordinary enough.  Their occupations are quotidian—students, professors, retirees, an occasional factory worker or attorney—and outwardly their lives circumscribe regular routes and routines.

Inwardly, however, Kinder’s characters are quietly rebellious, pushing back against louder, more forceful personalities than their own, sometimes even resisting the nearly inviolable power structures of contemporary society.

Such is the case with seventy-six-year-old Maggie, the protagonist of the title story.  Annoyed by the conduct of a certain president-elect, Maggie one morning posts an ill-advised sentiment to her Facebook page: “Maybe someone will shoot him before he takes office.”  Although she quickly deletes the post, by seven o’clock that evening two men in suits come calling and adeptly transport her to an interrogation facility in Kansas City.  Along the way, Maggie’s meekly uttered “I protest” is politely dismissed.

Yet Maggie’s true rebellion is existential rather than procedural.  Her two nights in custody are sandwiched around a day of interrogation, a process in which she asks questions that are as challenging as those she answers.  Nevertheless, on the morning of her release she feels “bruised, though no one had struck her.”  Outwardly she maintains her dignity as a guard transports her home, but inwardly she is shaken and feels herself traveling through “a dream world.  She had never lived at all, scurrying from nightmare to nightmare, an eternity of ignorant coming into being.”

Maggie’s angst at her place in the universe is further agitated by the fact that the police have confiscated her guns.  Believing herself innocent of an actual crime, she decides the way to assert herself is not to commit violence but to purchase replacement firearms and petition for the return of those confiscated.  A common citizen, she feels herself “armed with only a thin file of photos and records.  But she had to claim her property, so the right to own it would remain hers.”

Although different than Maggie in age and gender, college student Leo from “The Brute” shares her innate sense of justice.  Residing in “an older, poorer neighborhood close to campus, where many of the residents were students,” Leo circumspectly assumes the lead in a rebellion against a boorish neighbor who keeps his huge Great Dane-Labrador mix chained to a pipe and routinely neglects to feed or water him.  The dog is one of several animals in Kinder’s collection, and it serves much the same role as creatures elsewhere in the book—as an entity whose proximate existence demands moral choice from the human beings who cross its path.

Leo’s sense of morality is quietly kindled on the night when he discovers his neighbor has not provided a water pan for the dog.  “His thirst angered me,” Leo recounts, “though not at him.”  As a part-time trainer of hunting dogs, Leo believes that “one man shouldn’t interfere with another man’s training,” but the sizeable animal, whom he begins to call The Brute, is thirty pounds under weight and facing such purposeless neglect that Leo resolves to set his own code aside.  Foregoing directly confrontational options, he deals with the true brute of the story by acting behind the scenes, even telling one neighbor who accuses him of failing to act, “I am doing something.  You just can’t see it.”  Indeed, by the end of the story the dog is free of his abusive owner and in the care of a better man.

In “Recovering Integrity,” yet another story in which a dog is rescued, unemployed husband and father Allen lives in his capable wife’s shadow, apparently without undue resentment:  “He knew she was more intelligent than he, maybe more wily, too, and certainly more ambitious.  But he truly loved her and hoped that made them equal in some kind of spiritual way.”  Still, the routine details of Allen’s life appear to challenge such a hope, since even the job placement bureau he employs is “on his wife’s paycheck.”

While his wife and children are away fulfilling the responsibilities of job and school, Allen decides to rebel against routine details.  Deciding it is his responsibility to entertain the family’s new and as yet unnamed puppy, he bundles the dog off to the park where diversions include other animals such as ducks, kangaroos, and even a polar bear displayed in its enclosure.  Somehow, though, the puppy strays beyond Allen’s sight, and at the story’s apex Allen discovers within himself a capacity for action no one would expect of him—least of all Allen.  At home later that evening he feels himself exhausted by the day’s events, yet “just alert enough to speak one lucid sentence” to his wife, a sentence that is the fruit of self-knowledge.  “I’m going in a different direction,” he tells her, and seeing something mysteriously new in her husband, she agrees.

A Common Person and Other Stories closes with “The Stuff of Ballads,” a communal-voiced story somewhat in the tradition of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”  In it, an unnamed woman who is “comely” rather than beautiful revolves at the center of the community’s fascination.  Married to a banjo-playing husband who plies limited skills at local bars, she possesses no musical ability herself but nevertheless stands far enough apart from the crowd to inspire rumors.  The rumors attaching to her marriage are “common, particularly because the couple seemed perfect, so devoted to one another and to their two children.  Sooner or later something spicy would emerge, because no one was truly that happy.”

What emerges turns out to be another, better banjo player, a “hot musician, so good that lesser musicians got nervous if he was even standing nearby.”  And the woman, acting on a ballad-worthy passion, rebels against societal norms and thereby becomes society’s heroine—or at least the heroine of a story they love to tell.  Like the friends, neighbors, and acquaintances in “A Rose for Emily,” they love her best not for the common person she is, but for the person they take pleasure in imagining her to be.

M. Kinder’s gift for creating meaningful characters is marked by her awareness of complexities continually at work in every person and by the mysterious alchemies of need, will, and fortune that shape our relationships, including those we share with animals. A Common Person and Other Stories is her third collection, garnering her the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, and it reveals a writer of mature range, one whose discernment of human and creaturely existence is anything but common.

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