IF ONLY YOU PEOPLE COULD FOLLOW DIRECTIONS, by Jessica Hendry Nelson. Counterpoint, 256 pp., $25.
In the title essay of this debut collection from Jessica Hendry Nelson, the author and her mother have driven to Delray Beach, Fla., to visit Nelson's brother, Eric, whom they believe to be at long last sober but who has actually been off the wagon for months. As they realize the truth, it is as if "we are in a play rehearsing the same scene for the gazillionth time.
"Mother and sister wait anxiously while son/brother gets high in tacky Florida motel room/mother's unfinished attic/dimly lit McDonald's bathroom/ snow-heavy parked car/bowling alley urinal/New York City diner/empty New Jersey lifeguard station/suburban basement/family friend's gold-trimmed bathroom/bathroom/bathroom/bathroom/small black space of empty and release.
"Take gazillion and one."
The 14 autobiographical essays in this collection, of which the preceding quote is a partial synopsis, are graced by fine writing and insight, all the more crucial since this territory is well traveled. The memoir of a dysfunctional family united by love, booze and drugs has been done by Mary Karr, Susan Cheever, Caroline Knapp and many others, but the familiar story is refreshed by the unfussy lyricism of Nelson's voice and the interesting structure of the book. Each chapter could stand alone, and rather than driving a plot, they explore a set of relationships over time.
At the center of the overlapping circles are the "conjoined triplets," mother, sister and brother. Nelson's father, an unsuccessful product of the Philadelphia upper crust, was an alcoholic and died from a fall after many incarcerations and rehabilitations. Among the others we meet are Nelson's fragile gay friend, Jordan; her boyfriend, Nick; her paternal grandmother, Cynthia, whose stories and behavior are ample evidence of her pronouncement, "Mothers are no good, Jessie, mothers are no good"; and the Jewish side of her family, people who say "keppie" for head, who sell upholstery and real estate.
Nelson uses an incantatory style in two essays. A Prologue, addressed to her brother, traces the appearances of her father in their lives, with the recurring phrases "We visit him" or "He visits us." To equally good effect, the essay called "In New York" opens each paragraph with its title. Years -- 1989, 2006, 2012 -- are noted obsessively throughout the book, part of the attempt to pin things down, to know what caused what.
Some may have had it with this topic, but many of us find it of perennial interest, at least in the right hands. Now that she's weighed in with her version of the old story, it will be intriguing to see what this gifted young writer does next.