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Patricia McNair’s Responsible Adults Launches Sunday, Jan. 3

Sunday, January 3, 2021

By Donald G. Evans

Life is hard in author Patricia Ann McNair’s new collection,Responsible Adults. It is hard in ways inherited, and hard in ways self-inflicted, and hard in ways merely unlucky. But what’s telling about these uncommonly good stories is that that difficulty is assumed, never spoken of or lamented so much as dealt with. Life is like that in the world of these stories. For example, in “The Truth is Not Much Good,” the narrator matter-of-factly tells us, “We didn’t have much. Clean underwear, toothbrushes. And now beer, tequila, toothpaste. A plastic bag. My purse.”

Responsible Adults is a collection in which each story builds upon the last, not in terms of plot or necessarily character but rather in terms of milieu. It’s a world of cigarette smoke and discarded fast food wrappers, but also kittens and Lucky Charms, “handmade lives” that always, or almost always, keep trying for the sake of others, if not themselves. 

Relationships are the ballast in many of these stories. The interactions between mother and daughter, husband and wife, husband and neighbor, teacher and student, driver and hitchhiker tell us, in nuanced portraits, more about the subject than those people that inhabit their spheres. What do our decisions say about who we are? How does our interactions with family, friends, and lovers reflect upon our true personas?

The title, Responsible Adults, which comes from a story of the same name, is spoken by a police officer investigating the circumstances of two children left alone in a car. It’s just the two of them, no responsible adults in sight. The brother and sister manage, for day after day after day, to survive on their own, hammered with the realization that ultimately living is up to them, promises of safety or protection a fairy tale told to ease that harsh reality. 

Ironically, it is the children, in many of these stories, that play a parental role, often forced into positions of pre-mature responsibility. In “My Mother’s Daughter,” the narrator, a child, serves as confidante and adviser to a mother desperately trying to lasso a proper boyfriend. In “Salvage,” the children serve as co-conspirators to a soon-to-be-gone father’s quirky hobby. In “What Girls Want,” the teenaged daughter teaches a bumbling, alcoholic father empathy. 

The stories do not operate on a continuum. A story like, “A Good Reader,” while it does explore notions of family and caregiving, stands alone as a funny, erotic tale of release, or pleasure, during a stressful time. “Maria Concepción” is a magical story of a pastor and a needy immigrant in which the poor ultimately offers as much to the rich as vice versa. In “Regarding Alix,” a teacher finds the outcast more interesting and enlightened than the well-adjusted and yet still is unable to influence her tragic fate. 

There are so many great titles in this collection, “Things You Know But Would Rather Not” being my favorite. In fact, the table of contents is a harbinger of the high literary quality of the stories to come. It’s a testament to what a fine collection this is that it’s hard to say what are the best couple of stories. So many of these stories contain memorable lines, riveting characters, and just outstanding writing, such as the first-person account of an alcoholic that weaves into and out of a wasted life that feels, in its destruction, almost inevitable, or effortless. 

Buy the book through Women & Children First, which is sponsoring the launch on Sunday, Jan. 3, starting at 6 p.m.  Register in advance for the virtual event, which is free and open to the public via Crowdcast. 


Donald G. Evans is the Founding Executive Directordond of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. He is the author of a novel and short story collection, and editor of an anthology. His personal blog often explores Chicago literature.

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