The short story in the current issue of the New Yorker, Gina Ochsner's "The Fractious South," is about a Russian Jew named Misha who gets drafted to fight in Chechnya and returns home a little damaged. (The other men recruited from Misha's town are less lucky: One is "blown to bits," one turns his gun on himself, two others are torched to death with "their eyes open.") To escape his petulant, ovulating wife and to distract himself from the "hammers inside [his] head," Misha spends his days fishing; his shrapnel-studded grandfather taught him "that nothing in life could be so bad that fishing wouldn't make it better, or, if not better, then bearable, or, if not that, then at least it was a way to pass the time while you waited for your luck to change." On the proud day Misha catches a speckled trout, his excitement carries a kind of strange pain, and he feels as if he "had swallowed a sharp river reed and it had lodged inside [his] chest."

"The Fractious South" is politically rich and technically and emotionally ambitious, both heavy with horror and unexpectedly funny, and it has the same masculine tenderness as the title piece in Ochsner's hugely overlooked 2002 short-story collection, The Necessary Grace to Fall. The appearance of the story also signals major career ambitions on Ochsner's part: The New Yorker is the most prominent forum for publishing short fiction in this country, and they almost never publish unsolicited work. "I just thought, I'll shoot the moon," Ochsner said earlier this week, by phone, from her house in Keizer, Oregon. "I just about fell out of my chair" when the magazine accepted it, she said. (Paperback rights to The Necessary Grace to Fall never sold because the book was barely reviewed and the author basically unknown.)

No one falls out of chairs in the title story in The Necessary Grace to Fall, though a lot of people fall from bridges. The main character, Howard, processes life claims for a company called Hope and Life Insurance, though increasingly he begins to feel that he has neither hope nor much of a life, and that his job is overwhelmingly dull. The first day, someone teaches him how to file a boring report about a boring death, and he feels "a space widening inside his rib cage. He had hoped for something more exciting. A little more murder."

Misha and Howard both have pains in their chests and are death-obsessed. (Death-obsessed may be a way to describe Ochsner's writing, too; and she did win the 2002 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction.) Other similarities: Misha, like Howard, avoids his wife (Misha's is always clobbering him with her heeled shoes, Howard's thinks he's cheating on her); both are transfixed by the moon (a "concrete moon," a moon "round as a month full of fallers and jumpers"); and, until the end of their respective stories, neither is convinced that being alive is better than the alternative.

frizzelle@thestranger.com

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