Orders of Protection by Jenn Hollmeyer (University of North Texas Press, 2019).
When Salamander first published Jenn Hollmeyer’s short story “Step Off at Ten” in the spring of 2012, the editors were taken with the story’s subtle power and confidence, with the clarity and depth of the voice in a story that could easily have clouded the narrative with its inherent drama: a woman drives her small daughter through a snowstorm to confront her husband and his mistress at a St. Patrick’s Day parade. The situation is chaotic, but the voice is rational and self-aware, funny and droll just when the tension becomes too thick. It’s a story of an all-too-common circumstance (cheating husband, failing marriage) told in a new way, with its setting and details rendered so carefully, its perspective so bitterly rich, that stereotypes fall away and the humanity of the characters shines memorably, down to the knockout of an ending that Hollmeyer delivers so evenly.
The relationship between a short story published in a literary magazine and its editors is almost always a brief but intimate one, compressed by page counts and deadlines. After the initial attraction—the giddy serendipity of finding the one—the relationship becomes almost entirely critical, and a one-sided exchange, at that. Only after the copyediting, the proofreading, the final nitpicking before printing, can the story again be enjoyed for the purities that brought it to the journal in the first place. What a rare treat, then, to revisit a story nearly eight years after publication and feel as enamored with its prose as you did on your first read. An even rarer gift is to find that all the rest of the stories in the collection are equally rewarding, as they undoubtedly are in Jenn Hollmeyer’s Orders of Protection, which was the winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize and was published by the University of North Texas Press. In these twelve stories, Hollmeyer explores a vast range of characters—from an aging tribute band rock star to an altruistic new lawyer—with limitless empathy and an eye for protection. Who needs to be saved, and who will do the saving?
In “Step Off at Ten,” Hollmeyer shows us her intuitive ability to capture the inner lives of women, an understanding reflected throughout the collection. It is here, in these private conversations with themselves, that the women in Hollmeyer’s world—a swath of rural to urban lower-middle class Illinois—are able to admit to themselves the feelings of frustration and inadequacy as wives and mothers that they would otherwise be unable to speak. Anna, the librarian turned stay-at-home mother of “Step Off at Ten,” catalogs to herself some of the signs that her husband is back with the woman he’d promised to stop seeing:
He’d started keeping his phone in his pocket instead of putting it on the kitchen counter when he got home from work. I’d find him texting at odd hours. Work, he’d say, fighting a smile. Plus, I couldn’t find two of the shirts I’d gotten him for Christmas.
And the hardest thing: He seemed happier.
And though this inward gaze is most often self-critical, it also allows Anna a chance to quietly relish in her own small triumphs: “I told Gwen to sit back and buckle up, and she did. Ed usually had to ask her two or three times to do something, but not me.”