To borrow (shamelessly) a simile from Forrest Gump beginning a Jess Row story is like sampling from a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to bite into. In his most recent collection, Nobody Ever Gets Lost, the title story centers around a young woman struggling to come to terms with the death of her fiancé in 9/11. Another story, “Amritsar,” is written from the perspective of a middle-aged Sikh immigrant learning to fish from his son, who is planning to marry a white American girl. Row’s O. Henry and Pushcart-Prize-winning story “Sheep May Safely Graze” centers around a federal bureaucrat during the Reagan administration, grieving over the death of his young daughter in a freak boating accident at summer camp. The stories in Nobody Ever Gets Lost take place in Thailand and Washington, D.C.; New York City and the Bronx; the quiet Virginia suburbs. Row is able to tap into a wide range of perspectives and personal histories, creating characters that feel both fresh and intrinsically familiar.
Row does not shy away from exploring a variety of ethnicities, cultures, and religious backgrounds in his characters. However, when reading Nobody Ever Gets Lost I was most struck not by the differences between the characters, but rather by their similarities – feelings of rage, of loss, of loneliness, of confusion. In Row’s stories, small moments of misunderstanding lead to devastation and regret. His characters grapple with morality and faith; they betray each other and, sometimes, find moments of redemption. As novelist Julie Orringer observes, Row “is concerned with human stories, with tragedy on the scale of individual lives; while these stories resonate far beyond the characters themselves, the stories’ aim seems to be to illuminate the complicated nature of particular human experience. These are psychologically astute portraits of men and women whose outward circumstances often reflect inward states of loss or grief.”
Indeed, a theme that Row delves into again and again, and a thread that ties many of his stories together, is the moments of connection and disconnection among people. In Nobody Ever Gets Lost, these moments often brush right up against each other, a conversation suddenly shifting in tone, paths veering off into new directions from a single phrase. Because of a flicker of eye contact in a train station, a young British girl finds herself in a van in Bangkok, facing certain death. A moment of connection between two college students – the human touch of skin to skin – is colored by the later knowledge that one of them dies in a failed suicide bombing. In “The Call of Blood,” narrator Kevin muses, “That’s what you do around these people – you spatter words around like paint and call that a conversation, you say horrible things and take them back and say, that’s a relationship, that’s what I always wanted.” And in Row’s work it is the disconnections you are often left with – miscommunication and anger that lead to irrevocable violence.
Yet, in the same story “The Call of Blood,” another character says, “Language is the sickness and the cure.” Perhaps, in the violence, there is redemption – if not for the characters, then for us as readers. For Row has a remarkable ability to evoke empathy in the reader for his characters, to spark vivid connection between ourselves and these raw, whole, complicated lives on the page. To put it simply, his work caused me to think about the world and the people around me in a new way. It may be true that when beginning a Jess Row story you don’t know what to expect – you can’t typecast where it will take place or the characters it will center around – but you can expect that a Jess Row story will challenge you, move you, and stay with you long after you have turned the final page.
Nobody ever gets lost
by Jess Row
Five Chapters Books, 2011
Jess Row was born in 1974 in Washington, DC. After graduating from Yale in 1997, he taught English for two years as a Yale-China fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He completed an MFA at the University of Michigan in 2001. His first book, The Train to Lo Wu, a collection of short stories set in Hong Kong, was published in 2005; in 2006 it was shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize. In 2007 he was named a “Best Young American Novelist” by Granta. He has also received an NEA fellowship in fiction and a Whiting Writers Award. His nonfiction and criticism appear often in The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and Threepenny Review. His current projects include a novel, a third collection of stories, Storyknife, and an anthology of critical writings on the short story, On Being Short. In 2009, Jess and his wife, Sonya Posmentier, started Suture Press, which publishes limited edition chapbooks of short fiction and poetry. You can find Jess’s chapbook The True Catastrophe here. Jess is an associate professor of English and Buddhist chaplain at The College of New Jersey, and lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with Sonya and their two children, Mina and Asa. A member of the core faculty in the low-residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he also teaches in the MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong.