“It’s either school, a job, or a girl,” she said. “Or death. Those are the only reasons for coming to Kansas. Unless you’re born here, of course. Then it’s a matter of escaping.”

This seems to be the consensus among many of the characters in Becky Mandelbaum’s Bad Kansas: Stories (2017), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. It could also be said to represent the views of the author, since Mandelbaum herself no longer lives in Kansas.

I’d love to be able to say that this was the perfect book for my challenge. That after reading this book, I understand Kansas and the people who live there. And, to some extent, I think it’s true. But, for the most part, after reading this book, I just felt depressed and sorry for anyone who lives in Kansas. Which is not exactly what I was going for with this challenge. Kansas, in Mandelbaum’s stories, is a lurking, ominous presence–kind of like the background tension music that builds up a scary scene in a movie. Or maybe that image is a little too actively malevolent–maybe it’s more the bleak, hopeless violin music of a death scene. There is very little actual description of Kansas landscapes, and the stories take place in towns and cities, rather than the rural farmland we tend to think of when we hear “Kansas.”

Even the character from the story “The Golden State,” who passive aggressively sabotages her relationship because she can’t seem to adapt to life in California, still thinks of Wichita as:

…the saddest, ugliest city in the world, a city of Burger Kings and pawn shops and antiabortion billboards and residential streets bursting with plastic playground equipment and ratty front yards patrolled by toddlers in dirty diapers, snot dripping from their grimy little noses—noses their mothers would die to protect.

Moving to California seems to be an overwhelming culture shock for her.

“It doesn’t even snow here. I looked it up. What kind of place doesn’t snow?”

“It snows in the mountains. We can go to the mountains and see snow.”

“I don’t want to go see snow like it’s some relic in a museum. I want it to actually snow. I want it to rain. I want the sky to do something, anything at all.”

Her response is to become depressed, and to sabotage her relationship with the man she followed to the coast, leading on a California surfer she meets and purposely giving him her boyfriend’s cell phone number instead of her own so that his “dick pics” go astray… and the boyfriend buys her a train ticket back to Kansas.

And this brings us to that meanness of spirit that I noticed in Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, which seems so much at odds with the image I think most of us have of Kansans. Maybe it comes from the bleakness that pervades Mandelbaum’s stories–maybe that bleakness is integral to Kansas and comes out in the people there in this casual cruelty (which, in turn, leads to the toughness from enduring such things).

Although, at least the boyfriend bought her a ticket home–he could have just kicked her out. Maybe there is a modicum of niceness left… Or maybe it’s just the women/girls who have this streak of meanness?

Except that in the story, “Night of Indulgences,” the main character, Ben, walks off and leaves the woman stranded, naked–her dress hanging from a tree, blocks away from the hotel room where she is waiting for him to return with some clothing for her. She hadn’t done anything to him; they were both in an awkward situation that neither really asked for.

So. Bad Kansas. The stories are interesting and dismally funny, and make me really not want to even drive through Kansas ever again. It’s not that I was expecting roses and Baum’s sweet, innocent farm girl Dorothy, but I wasn’t quite prepared for so much bleakness and quiet despair. I’m really hoping one of my other picks imbues Kansas with a few redeeming qualities…

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