I came across Karen E. Bender’s “Candidate” several months after I moved to a small Southern town and began working as a local news reporter. Diane Bernstein—the protagonist of Bender’s grittily realistic tale exploring the human side of staunch ideologies—works in the remedial writing lab of a private university. Like Diane, I was a city dweller, from the North, and progressive-minded. At least, that is, compared to the undergrads Diane teaches—students who come to class bearing diatribes against terrorists, “lazy people” and the “gay agenda.”
Diane is also coming to terms with her husband’s recent desertion, and bearing all the parenting responsibility for their two children, one of whom has spells of autism-related rage that result in the regular fleeing of babysitters. The story revolves around a single loaded episode, during which a conservative state Senate candidate calls on Diane’s family at home, for what turns out to be an extended and revealing visit.
This encounter made quite an impression on me, as it was more than a little similar to many which I’d been experiencing. For the first time in my journalistic career, I was interviewing elected officials and private citizens who believed in shuttering women’s health clinics, who favored slashing Medicaid benefits and cutting public-education funding in favor of vouchers for religious schools. And the thing was, a lot of the people I spoke with were otherwise nice, friendly, relatable. I was often left racking my own ideals, wondering how I could reconcile such wildly opposing values, maintain decorum, and truly feel I could fit in within my new community.
Getting to know Bender’s complicated main characters, Diane and Woody Wilson, felt essential, voyeuristic even. For instance, when Woody tells Diane that his opponent’s homosexuality “threatens family values,” I am envious of how straightforward she can be with him: “I don’t want to hear this bullshit.”
Like most politicians, however, Woody is congenial, and tries to relate to Diane. While she fantasizes about slamming the door on him, she is also, for her children’s sake, grateful for Woody’s paternal kindness, and perturbed when he collapses on her floor from exhaustion and, as he recovers, touches upon his own familial troubles. Though Woody is almost cheerfully vague about these matters, and believes faith in the Lord will solve all his problems, he is humanized before Diane, who previously saw him only as a talking head running a bigoted smear campaign. “She was afraid of him,” Bender writes, “which translated into a great and useless pity.”
By the time Diane finally works up the nerve to ask her visitor, “Why do you hate so many people? Why so intolerant? I just want to know,” I’m relishing the vicarious thrill of her candor. The author’s rendering of the mechanisms of this forced human interaction feels nuanced and precise, as do her characters. Part of what drives many readers—myself very much included—to seek great fiction is that ongoing quest for clarified insight into our own complex motives and belief systems. Bender’s masterful prose brings her flawed yet sympathetic characters alive. Their conflicts function as a prism through which I’m able to better contextualize my own dealings with humanity, and all their attendant strangeness and surprise.
Ecotone staff reader