I’ve read Maureen McHugh’s “Useless Things” at least three times now, and I admire it more with each rereading. It appears just a bit less than halfway through McHugh’s thought-provoking short story collection, After the Apocalypse. The first-person narrator is a woman living well outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a time when the United States seems on the brink of collapse: the economy is terrible, and water is extremely scarce in the Southwest — a time that doesn’t feel very far away from today. The narrator lives hand-to-mouth making dolls, particularly dolls called “reborns” that look almost, but not quite, real. She’s alone in her house but for her friendly dogs most days, which only makes her nervous when South American laborers crossing the border stop by her house looking for a meal in exchange for labor. She’s apparently on some list shared by these illegal immigrants as a kind woman who always has a handout. She doesn’t like it, but she can’t bring herself to turn these men away. But when she returns from an errand one day to find that her hospitality has been abused, she makes a few decisions about how to go on. This is a quiet story, one that describes a couple of days during which something bad happens — nonviolent, but certainly distressing – and the changes that follow. But it says much about what one will do when pushed just beyond the stretched yet tolerable limits by which one lives.
“Useless Things” is typical of McHugh’s writing. Always quiet and matter-of-fact, her stories seem so real that you can hardly believe they aren’t happening in the next county over. In “The Naturalist,” for instance, we learn early on that the zombie problem has been pretty much handled by the government, with the remaining creatures — the ultimate trash, worse than guys who cooked meth or fat women on WIC — isolated in zombie preserves. These areas are isolated by water, which the zombies won’t cross, and do double-duty as prisons for the hard-core bad guys the government just wants dead. The story follows Cahill as he scavenges, kills zombies, deals with other prisoners, and tries to puzzle out how the zombies work as hunters and killers. Again, McHugh writes in an understated style, just telling her audience what happened and how. There are no big moments, just an accumulation of small ones, so that even the denouement seems natural. It’s a powerful style, and a powerful story.
The same understated style is at work in “The Lost Boy: A Reporter At Large,” the story of a boy who goes into a dissociative fugue following the detonation of two dirty bombs in Baltimore. He is separated from his family and raised in foster homes, never regaining his memory of his family until his mother shows up at his place of employment one day. The focus of the story, therefore, isn’t on the dirty bombs; it’s on the effect of those bombs on one family. The story is particularized, humanized, made into a character study instead of a thriller, and in this quiet way tells us much more about the societal effects of such an attack.
All nine of the stories in this slim but indispensable volume share this same restrained approach to storytelling, adjuring the larger story of how an apocalypse came about and its major effects on society for the personal, small stories the apocalypse created. The title story, “After the Apocalypse,” doesn’t even really have an apocalypse; as the story says, “Things didn’t exactly all go at once. First there were rolling brownouts and lots of people unemployed…. Then the power started going out, more and more often. Pete’s shifts got longer although he didn’t always get paid…. Then the fires started on the east side of town. The power went out and stayed out.” The world as we know it ends, not with a bang, but a whimper. There’s no one who’s going to fix things. McHugh writes about how a mother and her daughter survive, using the most primitive of instruments: the mother’s body.
These stories are like individually polished and cut jewels. They’re not fiery diamonds, but more like chalcedony, beautiful and unusual. Each story bears multiple readings. You’ll want this collection on your shelf.