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The Other Side of the Story

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There's a revealing moment in Nancy Welch's just-released story collection, The Road From Prosperity, when a young man who writes copy for college catalogues gets a lesson in storytelling. He's made the mistake of describing the campuses as they really are, each with its individual warts. His editor tells him he should sell prospective students a stock fantasy of college life, instead. "Do you know about romance novels?" she asks him. "How the hero might be named Lance or Rod . . . but how at bottom, all the stories are the same? . . . We've done the market research, and different isn't good."

Welch wants her readers to know that, outside the realms of romance fiction and PR, the stories are not all the same. Her short stories take place in a landscape a college cataloueg writer would be hard-pressed to gloss over with canny adjectives. It's a suburban Ohio of identical tract homes and frequent factory lay-offs, of "Tuna Helper nights" and "For Sale" signs that have "sprung up like dandelions." Most of the stories are set in the 1970s, and the mood is -- as the title suggests -- one of downward mobility, the American dream a road-sign receding in the distance.

"Until that summer we had been middle-class kids," says the narrator of "The Good Humor Man," whose wisecracking salesman dad will soon become a casualty of downsizing. Later, in college, she will learn that he has been "replaced by a far superior being, New Economy Man, more flexible than a Slinky, able to bounce from job to job like a happy rubber ball."

That's just one way of telling the story. A different way is revealed in Welch's "Texas Sounds Like an Easy Place to Leave," in which we meet a New Economy Woman named Amber, wife and mom of two, who has "learned to make every place easy to leave" as her husband shuttles from one closing plant to another. Despite her soccer-mom veneer, her "sunny, finger-waving refusal of attachments," Amber is secretly shaken when her neighbor, a woman whose gesture of friendship she repelled, dies in an act of violence. How, Amber wonders, can her family turn their tragic neighbors into "people they knew, a story they can tell," when they never knew them at all?

Welch, who is 42 and an associate professor of English at the University of Vermont, believes in the power of narrative. "We routinely rely on stories for evidence for all kinds of things," she says. "It's how we live and see the world, through the stories we tell or, too often, others tell for us." In her academic life, Welch studies aspects of rhetoric and composition, and has published a book on revision. Her forthcoming second book, entitled Living-Room Teaching: Public Writing in a Post-Publicity Era, asks "how . . . ordinary people make room for their voices and arguments" in a world of "neoliberal privatization."

Welch has also been active in the UVM faculty union, and in opposing the imposition of the death penalty in the Donald Fell case. "A lot of what I do is make arguments and teach arguments -- I'm a rhetorician," she says. "But when I have a question, something where I don't know what the argument is, those are the things I'll write stories about."

Welch has been publishing her fiction in literary journals since the early 1990s; The Road From Prosperity was a runner-up for the Mary McCarthy Prize. Still, she says, it took her time to learn to tell her own stories. Like her characters, Welch grew up in Ohio. Before attending college at UMass Boston, she worked as a police reporter for South Boston's Patriot Ledger. "The body might be found at 5 a.m., and I would literally write stories over a radio, a walkie-talkie," Welch recalls. The job taught her to "pay attention to details and dialogue," but it also left her with a fear that she "couldn't write fiction. I thought that if you were a journalist, that ruined you; you couldn't make up things," she says.

Though Welch managed to overcome her "fear and trepidation" about writing fiction, finding her home ground took longer. In undergraduate workshops, she remembers reading authors such as John Updike, John Cheever and Bobbie Ann Mason: "You would either be reading about upper-class Northeast suburban families or you would be reading about hardscrabble life in Kentucky." Not seeing her own experience reflected in the syllabi, Welch assumed it would be "boring" to write about; instead, she chose standard New Yorker fiction settings such as "a yuppie family in Back Bay Boston."

In her senior year, visiting writer Stephen McCauley advised Welch that, if she wanted to study writing on the graduate level, she needed to "find her material." "So finally I went home and put on Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run and turned on my computer but turned off the screen so I couldn't see it, and started writing the opening of what's now 'The Road From Prosperity,'" Welch says, referring to the collection's title story, about a teenaged runaway. "I printed it out and wrote [McCauley] this note on it, asking, 'Is this my material?' and sent it to him. And he wrote back, 'Yes.'"

Many of the characters in Welch's stories are natural storytellers and fantasists, though they aren't always capable of putting their tales in writing. At UVM, Welch teaches a course called "U.S. Literacy Politics," in which students learn to "understand literacy as both a gatekeeper and a gateway," she says. As her students work with kids at the King Street Youth Center, they "realize . . . that the kids they're working with are incredibly literate, amazing storytellers, actors, slam poets, website designers," Welch says. "But it doesn't easily translate into a certainty of social success and economic stability."

Welch disagrees with those who believe that "art" in general, and fiction in particular, should keep a decorous distance from politics. "Any story or novel should reflect something of the world we live in, and that means it reflects something of the contradictions, the politics, the tensions and the struggles," she says.

But her stories don't read like position papers. The characters are neither heroes nor villains, and the narrative voice, whether first or third person, makes its points with dry, sometimes biting wit. In the only story set in Vermont, a mild-mannered writer living in a Burlington student ghetto discovers a savage side of himself when his neighbors refuse to turn down their stereo. "When the music started up . . . " Welch writes, "Allen considered for the first time that the reason he did not own a gun wasn't because he was a pacifist. It was because he was not."

The stories' protagonists struggle with issues of attachment against the backdrop of a world in which nothing -- jobs, families, values -- seems stable. Some characters become users and betrayers, underscoring their own social mobility by mistreating those they consider their inferiors. Others try to make themselves supremely adaptable, like Amber or the woman in "Tender Foot," who has learned to withdraw from her lovers before they reject her.

"When I sit down to write a story," Welch says, "I don't think I want to make an argument, I think I want to understand what was happening here through a series of narrative events. But in the end, there are implications, kind of embedded arguments being made." She thinks that most of the stories in The Road From Prosperity were written in a despondent mood, in which the triumph of "New Economy Man" and his rootless world seemed inevitable.

"Much more recently, in the past five years, I've been more active in saying . . . there's got to be an alternative," Welch says. "I hope that future stories might have some glimmer of 'Another world is possible.' I don't want any story to shoot down the possibility of the future."

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