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Nerve

by Barbra Leslie

In the first chapter of this debut book, the protagonist’s mother tells her that her father died when she was a child because “he lost his nerve.” Evelyn is 15 at this point, and it’s already clear that she’s in no danger of suffering the same fate: having decided that losing her virginity will allow her to concentrate better and improve her grades, she methodically seduces an English teacher. Thus begins the pattern that Nerve traces through the course of Evelyn’s life. In nearly every story she does an outrageous thing, takes a risk, and nearly every risk is sexual: She moves in with a teaching assistant twice her age, and cheats on him with a jazz musician. She has an affair with a married co-worker. She’s hired to interview an aging movie star, and seduces him instead. Evelyn seems to have taken her mother’s story to heart; the thrill of taking chances, of reinventing herself each time she sets her sights on a new man, drives her. She finds meaning, and the motivation to keep living, in risk and novelty. But the challenges presented by seemingly unavailable men distract her from the more mundane challenges of her education and career. She’s a precociously gifted teenager – one who’s read Jansen’s History of Art from cover to cover and is amazed her classmates haven’t – but each subsequent narrative of sexual conquest finds her in a worse and more demeaning job, a smaller apartment, a lower stratum of society.

Leslie’s cool, spare, deadpan prose notes the details of Evelyn’s existence, leaving the reader to connect the dots and plot the trajectory of her downfall. More short-story cycle than novel, the book has an episodic, discontinuous storyline, appropriate to Evelyn’s disjointed life.

The stories are brief, some only two or three pages long, and often there are gaps of several years between them; by the time we’ve adjusted to seeing Evelyn in a new context, she’s moved on yet again. However intense the crisis she faces may be, by the next story it’ll be forgotten completely. Leslie captures the narrowness and immediacy of her heroine’s perspective all too well. Even in her excesses, Evelyn is convincing, but it’s hard to convey much about the richness and complexity of human experience through a character who is blind to so much of it. It’s only at the very end that she sees how hollow her life has been; by then, we’ve known for some time.