The title of Elizabeth Strout’s new and splendid book, “Anything Is Possible,’’ might come as a surprise. In her 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge,’’ Strout showed herself a dramatist of regret — of the pain that comes from knowing that many things, even most things, are not in fact possible, that the best we can hope for is “a sense of safety, in the sea of terror that [is] life.”
Yet to see Strout as simply interested in regret is to ignore the simultaneous presence in her fiction of something very different: unbidden, shattering grace. Strout frequently shows us what Flannery O’Connor called “the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace” into human lives. In these moments, a deeper knowledge of self becomes possible; radical change — from selfishness to selflessness; from bitterness to love — becomes imaginable. In Strout, as in O’Connor, these moments of possibility often are refused. But they’re still there, beckoning and potentially transfiguring.
“Anything Is Possible’’ confirms Strout as one of our most grace-filled, and graceful, writers. Like “Olive Kitteridge,’’ “Anything Is Possible’’ exists somewhere between a short-story collection (nine in all) and a novel (the interrelated stories display a coherent shape). Despite the structural similarity to her most celebrated book, though, “Anything Is Possible’’ has a more direct connection with Strout’s most recent, austerely beautiful novel, “My Name Is Lucy Barton.’’
In that book, Lucy Barton, raised by a damaged, desperately poor family in Amgash, Ill., escapes to Manhattan and a successful career as a novelist. “Anything Is Possible’’ isn’t a continuation of Lucy’s story; she only appears once, in a delicate, shattering retelling of her first visit home in years. Rather, “Anything Is Possible’’ offers a more complete, wider-angled vision of the imagined world from which Lucy came. Characters mentioned in passing in “My Name Is Lucy Barton’’ — a neighbor here, a cousin there — are picked up, turned around, examined in all their complex facets.
These characters are, by almost equal measure, noble and petty, and many of their stories center on grace — accepted and refused, longed for and unanticipated. The first story, “The Sign,” introduces us to Tommy Guptill, an elderly, gentle man who, when younger, saw his dairy farm burn to the ground. In one long sentence (I’ll only quote a portion), Strout uses close third-person to show how Tommy found grace limning destruction: “just as the roof of his house crashed in . . . he understood why angels had always been portrayed as having wings, because there had been a sensation of that — of a rushing sound, or not even a sound, and then it was as though God, who had no face, but was God, pressed up against him and conveyed to him without words — so briefly, so fleetingly — some message that Tommy understood to be: It’s all right, Tommy.” As the story continues, Tommy’s faith in such grace lessens, even while the effects of this experience — a loving relation to those scarred by pain, even when the scars make love difficult — live on.
In the collection’s final story, “Gift,” we meet another elderly man, Lucy’s cousin Abel. While at a community production of “A Christmas Carol,’’ Abel has a realization: His grown, married daughter Zoe “was unhappy. The thought became a dark shape in his lap, as though he was required to hold it there.” (That strange metaphor about secret, uncomfortable knowledge reads like something out of late Henry James, and it’s typical of Strout’s brilliant bursts of figurative language.) At the story’s end, we again see an unanticipated instance of grace — “not fear but a strange exquisite joy” — this time brought about through an encounter Abel has with the slightly unhinged actor who just played Scrooge (another character famously touched by grace).
Throughout, Strout refuses to look away from sadness — or from humanity’s endless and inventive capacity for meanness. In one story, a wife is complicit in her husband’s sexual predations. In another, Lucy’s niece insults a guidance counselor who responds in kind. In almost every story, “the crap of class superiority” is used as a tool to shame others. Strout is the last writer who could be accused of sentimentality.
But Strout also shows how this meanness might be — so briefly, so fleetingly — transformed. In one of the book’s best stories, a vet remembers his wartime experience with religion. One chaplain was “a phony. Theatrical. ‘Jesus is your friend,’ the new chaplain would say, with silly pontification, as though he were dispensing Jesus Pills that only he was in charge of.” But there was another chaplain, the vet recalls: “what a nice guy he was, simple. ‘God weeps with us,’ he had said.”
There’s a gift to be found in this simple sharing of pain. It’s the gift of grace, the place where this book finds possibility in a vale of tears.
ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 254 pp., $27
Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.