“I’m still worried about that bill for the doctor,” 17-year-old Ann Ransom tells her boyfriend, Archie. “You should help me out.” Readers might suspect an abortion, but the real malady turns out to be a perforated eardrum caused by Archie’s tongue. Stop That Girl, Elizabeth McKenzie’s debut “novel in stories,” is full of such unexpected incidents—the damage is quirky but no less acute. Forming a bildungsroman with ellipses, these 10 episodes follow candid, perceptive Ann from childhood to motherhood, a trajectory on which she shrinks rather than grows.
Set in Southern California, the early tales flail with reckless energy. In the title piece, eight-year-old Ann kicks her stepfather in the shins and walks into a pool fully clothed. Upon meeting her baby sister for the first time in an airport, she grabs her and runs, in pursuit of a moment alone with the newborn. Cries from her family to “Stop that girl!” prove futile. But in the later stories, Ann becomes more, well, stoppable. A tone of loss gradually unspools into the narrative. At the end of “Look Out Kids,” 18-year-old Ann wonders why she never acted on her summer crush. “It all could have been so much different,” she observes. This frankly unlyrical closing line—the clumsy “much” deepening the wistfulness—anticipates the regret to come. Grown-up Ann refers to her husband as “the person I married,” and has a habit of driving downtown and sitting in her car, afraid to get out.
McKenzie’s first offering is appealingly idiosyncratic, sharpened throughout by a keen sense of humor. Its only deficiency stems from a strength: Her characters deserve a full-fledged novel. Fictional intimacy comes from lingering with a character between episodes. Her readers will be lucky if, next time, McKenzie fills in the blanks.