Indefinable and Great, Joanna Pearson’s “Now You Know It All”

Midway through Joanna Pearson’s short story, “Boy in the Barn,” the protagonist explains, “I’ve always loved that prelude, the buildup, the point when nothing has actually happened yet but you know it will.” Pearson consistently mines the tension in that “point” throughout her excellent new collection, Now You Know It All, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. This book, consisting of eleven stories, is mostly set in small-town North Carolina and manages to avoid relying on stereotypical or even overly-familiar versions of the South. These stories present the myriad of ways small-town life is anything but small to those experiencing it.

Similar to Rachel, the protagonist of “Boy in the Barn,” the main character of “The Lily, The Rose, The Rose” experiences that “old feeling that something was happening in which she played a crucial role but to which she’d been offered no explanation.” In this story, Cora, encumbered by her “geriatric pregnancy,” takes her young son for walks in the local cemetery where she runs into a stranger who seems to recognize her. This young woman is wearing a one-of-a-kind necklace that once belonged to Cora. She’d stopped wearing jewelry when her son was a baby. His “grabby fists” had taught her that “motherhood was a lesson in danger.” Still, the young woman’s presence disturbs her, sending her back to a memory: her time in a psychiatric ward, where she initially encountered this woman.

While her son plays in the cemetery or her new husband lovingly prepares a meal for their family, Cora fears that her second pregnancy will bring on another attack of postpartum depression. She remains lucid throughout the story, but when she encounters the woman in the cemetery again, she says, “I’m not sure what I was thinking. Trying again.” The woman, who Cora had never gotten along with in the hospital and who had stolen her highly-prized necklace, suddenly leaves, and Cora regrets her departure, believing her to be “one of the few people in the world who understood” what she was going through. “The Lily, the Rose, the Rose” ends in uncertainty, with Cora pressing on, haunted by past struggles, “the shapes of leaf and shadow sparking and trembling behind her.”

One can hardly discuss this collection without mentioning “Riding,” which takes place during an unnamed pandemic, at a point when “The quarantine could make a person feel simultaneously vulnerable and powerful.” Janet, the narrator, is traveling to see her dying grandmother when an animal jumps out in front of her car, causing her to be rear-ended by the looming car tailgating her down the deserted, rural road. Janet responds warily at first to the unmasked woman who appears at her window, who soon declares that she has no insurance and will “have to make this up to you some other way.” Whether Janet’s hesitancy is the “extra skittishness” brought on by the pandemic or a result of the woman’s suspicious behavior, it is difficult to tell. Pearson presents Janet’s first-person account reliably, but as we are all learning, pandemics can make us feel crazy even when we’re not. When Janet accepts a ride from strangers, going by the names of Crow, Longshot and Rogue, it’s difficult not to expect the worst. 

The trio are on their way to one of the “Masquers” pandemic parties and encourage “Janet the Bandit” to accompany them. Janet’s guard remains up, partly because she has seen the skewed thinking the pandemic has inspired firsthand. Her husband, Dan, abandoned her for what he refused to a call a cult or commune but that, at least from Janet’s perspective, seems pretty close to one. Whether the Masquers win her over or Janet decides to relax her vigilance is difficult to know, but soon “a new panic” rises in her. She “no longer wanted to take leave of these strangers. [She] no longer wanted to be left alone.” But just as Janet admits this realization to the group, they abandon her on the side of the road, leaving her with “the sense of being somewhere utterly foreign.”

Every story in this collection provides such foreignness, while also giving readers beautifully-drawn, wonderfully-damaged characters. Whether it’s the child therapist in “The Films of Roman Polanski,” who becomes taken in by the manipulations of “Devil Boy,” or Lindsay, on vacation with a male friend in Europe and acculturated into a tour group with a large, fundamentalist American family in “Rome,” it’s impossible not to root for them. This makes it all the more heartbreaking when they behave poorly, react impulsively, or otherwise demonstrate their flawed humanity — and ours. In “Dear Shadows,” a journalist thinks back on a past relationship with a now famous musician. In college, they had played a game together called “good versus great.” People who became great “had some indefinable quality she could never quite comprehend.” It’s easy to say the same about Now You Know It All. Each story contains plenty of moments and lines that demonstrate Pearson’s talent, but all the same, they also evince the “indefinable” qualities that make for a great short-story collection.

Now You Know It All: Stories
By Joanna Pearson
University of Pittsburgh Press
October 5, 2021