The Kindness of Strangers

By Hilma Wolitzer
Simon Van Booy Lucas Hunt

“The Sadness of Beautiful Things”
Simon Van Booy
Penguin Books, $16

In his preface to “The Sadness of Beautiful Things,” Simon Van Booy writes: “Most of the tales in this collection are based on true stories told to me over the course of my travels.” Good fiction is often the result of real experience filtered through the imagination. Although the experience of others may have been mined for much of this unusual and affecting collection, the author’s compassionate sensibility is omnipresent. 

The stories Mr. Van Booy chooses to tell all reflect the dichotomy of joy and sorrow in being, even when the subject is the viability of artificial intelligence. In “Playing With Dolls” a couple struggle to deal with the accidental death of their 13-year-old daughter, Chelsea, and acceptance of her exact physical replica — a robot without their child’s unique spirit or her potential. The official allotted period of adjustment is three months, and the passage of time is measured in brief, numbered chapters. 

At first the father tells the robotic Chelsea, “We’re going to love you no matter what,” and the mother says, “Oh, I feel so blessed.” They assure each other that their real child would want them to enjoy the comfort of her computerized replacement. But as the days pass, they begin to argue about their unnatural situation, and their sense of loss deepens. The father realizes that he, too, has become a kind of automaton who’s “been learning to impersonate the man he remembered before the accident.” While housecleaning, the mother discovers remnants of the absent, human Chelsea — “fingerprints and breath marks” on the mirror, and, among sweepings, “hairs, skin flakes, a smile of toenail.” 

Eventually, together, her parents acknowledge a familiar, agonizing truth — that they must allow themselves to fully grieve in order to go on.

A few of the stories in “The Sadness of Beautiful Things” depict surprising acts of generosity. The most satisfying one, “A Sacrifice,” is ostensibly about the McCrutchens, a poor and unpopular family whose uninsured house burns down. The seven incorrigible, unkempt McCrutchen children, known for “laughing at the old, and shouting silly things at other people’s children,” are dispersed among neighbors, while the family’s belongings, “their blackened, dripping things,” are carried out into the street. 

All would seem to be lost, except for the largesse of an anonymous benefactor. To everyone’s astonishment, a new house is built to replace the one lost to the fire, and people suspect “the Church had called in a favor from Rome, the Pope himself.” But a workman divulges that it was all arranged and paid for, via a lawyer, by someone local who’s chosen to remain anonymous. She turns out to be a frail, elderly widow named Kitty O’Donnell, who “most of the time was propped up in bed with the television on and something hot to drink.” 

“A Sacrifice” really begins midway with Kitty’s revelations to a neighbor about herself, and how her heart was changed late in life when she learned the details of her own convoluted history. “She felt open now, to the world, to the people suffering and the places outside the village that she heard about on the news.” 

I was reminded of William Trevor and Alice Munro in the startling but seemingly inevitable turns the story takes, right up to its wrenching finish.

In “The Hitchhiker,” Ben, a teenage boy thumbing rides far from home, is picked up after nightfall by Diane, a woman twice his age, driving alone, barefoot and wearing shorts. She anticipates his distrust of her seeming recklessness. “I don’t normally do this,” she said. “But I felt sorry for you.”

Still, there’s a sense of menace from both sides. Her offhand, unsolicited explanation seems suspect. And when they stop at a beach to share a fast-food meal on a blanket, Ben imagines driving away without her, wondering if she’d be embarrassed to tell the police she had picked up a hitchhiker. He also has tentative sexual thoughts about Diane, about the bare white thighs he carefully avoids looking at. Was he supposed to kiss her? What would his friends say if he did nothing? 

“But then Diane stood up and they ran down to the water. . . . They could not see much of the ocean, just a dark mass, with the occasional white dot moving along the horizon with shrill gasps. The world felt uninhabited, as though everything they knew and counted on had come to an end.” 

Back on the blanket, they enter into an intimate conversation that bridges the gap in their ages and circumstances. Ben discovers that Diane’s kindness to him isn’t inspired by random sympathy or some dark, ulterior motive, and he begins to see her as far more than the object of his adolescent fantasy. A few hours later, she drops him off with some money for the rest of his journey. 

“When he closed the door, they stared at one another through the glass, but only her outline was visible. It was the first of many times he would try to remember her face, the first of many times he would look for someone and not see them — search for someone whose absence defined him.”

Another tale of unexpected benevolence, “The Pigeon,” in which Arthur, a self-made boxer, befriends and supports a thief who’s robbed him at knifepoint, is less successful, perhaps because Arthur’s generous impulse is simply a given that’s never fully explored, and therefore feels gratuitous.

“Not Dying,” the book’s centerpiece, is rendered, like “Playing With Dolls,” in several tiny chapters, some of them even shorter than a page. Yet it has the feel of something much larger. It’s the only story with its own (dual) epigraphs, and a separate author’s note. The epigraphs are both references to the musical fugue. One of them is a dictionary definition and the other is a quote from Saint-Saëns: “A piece in which the voices come in, / And the listeners go out, one by one.” 

In the author’s note, we’re told that the story was inspired by a solitary Kentucky neighbor with halting speech and steps. Mr. Van Booy observed framed photographs of a woman and of a girl in a wheelchair in the man’s house, and a doll’s ice skate among the key chains dangling from his belt loop. The girl in the wheelchair was identified as the man’s daughter. The resonant story that follows evolved from these meager clues. 

The tension in “Not Dying” is, as its title implies, between the extremes of life and death. Fleeting pleasures of the moment are set starkly against the vastness of eternity. The whole of the story is in the head of Lenny, husband of Carolin and father of Jane. Something of great import has happened to his family, but we’re not certain what that is. We’re not even certain that Lenny knows. He alternately imagines his wife and daughter morbidly inert and vibrantly alive. A voice from his truck’s radio has ominously pronounced: “Repent. The end is near,” and he’s moved to imagine how dying would feel. 

But even as he holds his breath, his mind shifts to the idea of escape. He does so, at first, into memories of his childhood on a reservation, of his mother and himself — “Two people in a white car with soda, chips, and borrowed Nevada plates.” Then, he recalls more recent events of his life with Carolin and Jane that leave him rueful or exalted or terrified, and the reader filled with a combination of dread and hope. “They were at the mercy of flesh and bone. Things he could not comprehend would never be greater than his daughter’s hands, his wife’s hair on the pillow at night like black rivers.” 

The writing in these stories is often deceptively simple and exquisitely right. “As we neared the top of Piazzale Michelangelo, sunlight filled the streets like gold fabric.” At a jazz bar, just before the music begins, “The bartenders watch with their hands buried in ice.” And, when Chelsea’s head hits the pavement in “Playing With Dolls,” “Her final thought was the kind of panic all children feel when they know they’re in trouble.”

Simon Van Booy has written novels, other story collections, books for children, philosophical texts, and a play, and he moves with graceful ease among the various forms. The secondhand stories in “The Sadness of Beautiful Things” are first rate.

Hilma Wolitzer’s novels include “An Available Man” and “Hearts.” She and her husband lived part time in Springs for many years.

Simon Van Booy is a former resident of the South Fork and remains a regular visitor. He will read from his new collection at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Dec. 15 at 5 p.m.