I can tell you what Nice Big American Baby is not: an infant care primer. The latest hot mommy-lit novel. A memoir of childhood obesity. That’s the easy part, much easier than summarizing the actual contents of Judy Budnitz’s second collection of fabulist stories. Budnitz’s narratives stretch and mutate along with her characters, who adapt to disappointment and adversity in most peculiar ways—by shape-shifting, vanishing, or learning to love the thing they despise.
This may not be mommy lit, but Budnitz does dwell on mother-child blurriness in several stories, reshaping blissful symbiosis into something far more discomfiting. In “Where We Come From,” a pregnant woman named Precious resolves to escape her impoverished homeland and give birth across the border in the U.S. But her dream of a “nice big American baby” curdles into grotesquerie after she is repeatedly deported. Precious willfully keeps the unborn fetus inside her belly for years, even as he swells into an enormous toddler. “Her skin stretches, her bones shift, her blood feeds him,” Budnitz writes. “When people see her they are amazed, but she is not; she has seen it before, the lengths the body will go to to preserve itself, to cling to life.” Meanwhile, Julia, the white middle-class mother in “Miracles” (which initially appeared in The New Yorker), makes her own adjustments after her baby is born pitch-black. Friends assume she has been unfaithful, strangers make tactless remarks about adoption, and husband Jonas blames her weird food cravings for the child’s “flaw.” Budnitz has so much fun inflating parental ambivalence to mythical proportions that even standard anxieties about lactation and bonding take on an uncanny glow.
Other stories poke around familial relationships from the child’s perspective. “Flush” revolves around a mammogram, but its real revelation is the blurry boundaries of Lisa and her mother, two women tangled up in a mutual knot of tenderness and fear. On their way to the doctor’s office, Lisa notices that her mother’s arm still automatically flies out to shield her grown daughter when the car stops short; likewise Lisa feels similarly protective toward her aging mom—”the shoulder blades like folded wings under her sweater”—and has “the urge to slide across the seat and curl around her. It only lasted for a second.” She gets to act on her own impulse when her mother escapes from the doctor’s bathroom (the water “quivering, as if it had just been flushed”) and Lisa takes the mammogram in her mom’s place.
The narrator of “Nadia” is an underminer, as relentless and lacking in self-awareness as the mono-loguist in David Foster Wallace’s “The Depressed Person.” She is catty verging on malevolent toward Nadia, the mail-order bride of Joel (supposedly one of the narrator’s oldest friends), constantly ascribing the worst possible motives to this fragile immigrant. Like Precious in “Where We Come From,” Nadia finds little comfort within U.S. borders.. Instead of growing into a fat, happy American, she remains thin-skinned and frail, “wrapped as if to prevent breakage in a puffy quilted coat that covered her head to foot.” When the nasty narrator discovers that Nadia left a child behind, she sneers at the idea of her giving birth: “Out of those girls’-size-twelve hips? Such a tight squeeze. We pictured a blue and dented baby among gray hospital linen.” (On the other hand, the narrator is so juicy she can imagine “people taking bites, here and here and here. I could feed a family of five for a week.”) This ugly American can’t even be bothered to remember precisely which country Nadia comes from—it’s just one of those generic overseas hell zones on the nightly news, jam-packed with refugees and tanks. “Nadia” wavers in tone; like several other stories in this collection, it threatens to tip over into either preachiness or absurdity, but ends with a sharp twist that rescues the narrative from stale expectations.
In Nice Big American Baby, we never know where we stand: Is this political satire? Allegory? Magic realism? A sick joke? Budnitz’s voice is comfortable and perfectly pitched, and her characters live and think in ways that feel vaguely familiar. Yet the laws of the universe are different here. Tiny hints of strangeness slowly spread over every surface, like the fresh coat of white skin that eventually grows over the black baby in “Miracle” like “a crust, a chrysalis.” “The Kindest Cut” opens with a narrator paging through the diary of his ancestor, a Civil War surgeon. But this straightforward history quickly darkens into an ingrown fairy tale, the bizarre but riveting saga of a man obsessed with amputated limbs—preserving, cataloging, and harvesting them. They are, in his words, “merely innocent bystanders.” We too are bystanders in Budnitz’s world, and after a few hours here, it’s hard to see arms, legs, babies, or anything else quite the same way again.