In her short story collection I’m a Registered Nurse, not a Whore, Canadian author Anne Perdue focuses tightly on the personal and professional failures and successes of the North American working class. Taken as a whole, her stories present a sort of informal ethnology of an increasingly disappearing group of people: uneducated, hard working white people who long for things like discounted microwaves and all-inclusive resort getaways in lieu of intellectual and spiritual fulfillment.
Perdue’s characters will be familiar to most readers, although this is not necessarily a good thing; they are the people who get too drunk at work parties and tell racist jokes. They are the people who shout at each other in the middle of quiet and dimly lit restaurants who seem confused by the idea that they could be offending other customers. They are your uncle who shows up to your black tie wedding in chinos and a hawaiian shirt, and it is not charming or quirky or endearing. In short, Perdue’s stories are not about “how easily our desire to do good is perverted” (as the book’s description says), so much as they are an exercise in embarrassment by proxy. There are times when Perdue succeeds at evoking sympathy for her decidedly rough and uncool characters. Sally Snow of “CA-NA-DA,” Stu the contractor from the titular story and the desperate homeowners of “The Dry Well” all feel like real people who are likable despite their (glaring) flaws. These characters are the ones whose voices feel the most authentic. This is mainly because their inner monologues are distinguishable from the rest of Perdue’s figures whose thoughts tend to blur together in a haze of deliberately poor grammar and sports trivia.
To the detriment of her character development, there are some topes Perdue cannot let go of. Many of the characters are homophobic and racist to varying degrees, but rather than examining the cliche of working class bigotry, their beliefs are simply waved away by the fact of their class. Likewise, almost every male character is insecure about their lack of education and possessed of a strong anti-intellectualism. Their wives and lovers and daughters are exclusively concerned with their failed potential and fading beauty. No one has good teeth and everybody smokes. Perdue appears to sincerely want her readers to empathize with her characters, but much of the time their personalities are so two dimensional and so similar to one another that any insight the readers might gain into their mediocre lives seems more like voyeurism than anything else—we are most certainly laughing at them, not with them.
Where Perdue distinguishes herself from other authors of realistic fiction is in her writing style itself. Descriptive world building is her strong suit, and in most of the stories the settings she creates are more readily felt than the characters who inhabit them. Although the worlds of Perdue’s stories are superficially different, when taken together they create a strange and interesting collage. Readers are stranded in a place that is too hot, too humid, covered in plaster dust and concrete particulate. The drinks are overpriced and tacky, the fur coats are second hand and worn down under the armpits. This world is similar enough to ours that the idea that some people might actually live in it is worrying, and Perdue’s creeping walls of descriptive text ensure that her readers feel increasingly claustrophobic after completing each story.
Unfortunately, even the strongest aspect of Perdue’s writing is marred by stylistic flaws which add a level of amateurism to the collection. It’s possible that her inconsistent use of tense (particularly in “CA-NA-DA,” the longest story in the collection) and some of her more egregiously folksy metaphors (from “The Escapists”: “[he’s] wound up tighter than an Ozark banjo,’”(62)) are conscious choices rather than editorial oversights. In this case, however, the reason behind these choices makes little difference to the reader’s experience of the text; they simply read like awkward mistakes.
Ultimately, whether or not readers enjoy I’m a Registered Nurse, Not a Whore depends on a few factors. If you can leave off the idea of fleshed out, fully realized characters and instead engage with Perdue’s interesting descriptions of the worlds in which they live and, occasionally, the events that happen around them, the collection should make for some enjoyable summer reading. If, however, the concept of voyeurism without real empathy makes you itch, it will be difficult to compel yourself to get through more than a story or two.
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