In "Nobody's Girl," Antonya Nelson, whose previous books include three story collections and the novel "Talking in Bed," brings us Birdy, a displaced 30-year-old high school English teacher who is nowhere near as chirpy and cheerful as her name. In fact, Birdy is utterly depressed. She's been living for a year and a half in a trailer in the small town of Pinetop, N.M., having come from Chicago with big ideas about engaging idle young minds. By day, she's a renegade teacher whose students ask questions like, "Why are all these stories and poems so depressing?" By night, she's a stoner film buff who hangs out with a gay colleague, Jesus, a Pinetop native living with his mother and his aunt. Things change when Mrs. Anthony, the mother of one of her students -- hunky, dopey Mark, whose body is more mature than his mind -- hires Birdy to help her write the story of the mysterious, long-ago deaths of her husband and daughter. In one fell swoop, Birdy becomes a youthful Angela Lansbury -- interrogating the locals about suicide and murder -- and a diclassi Mrs. Robinson, straddling Mark on the trailer's linoleum floor.
What lies at the edges of this novel is haunting. The dead tempt Birdy: "People didn't want to float alone in their boats ... Perhaps the dead had that same urge for fellowship. Perhaps that explained ... their desire for her company. Her desire for their desire." Nelson, a Southwesterner herself, eloquently details the vast indifference of nature there: Birdy glides through her life between the mountains that loom eternally over Pinetop. And through Mrs. Anthony's clumsy efforts to Harlequin Romanticize her lost family, she makes an important point about the nature of storytelling: It creates meaning where there was none.
Unfortunately, the pacing and plausibility of the Anthonys' mystery falls apart. This wouldn't be a disaster except Birdy's emotional life doesn't add up, either. Birdy's family serves only as ghostly roots for her current troubles -- her mother died a year ago, she has iffy relationships with her father and her sister. A smattering of ex-boyfriends have trailed dirt through her past. Birdy's obsession with Mrs. Anthony's family drama, while it relates in obvious ways to her own, is also fuzzy. But the real problem is not knowing whether you are supposed to identify with Birdy or not. When she unleashes her sadness and disdain on Mark (correcting his English when he's talking about his dead sister) or Mrs. Anthony's bad prose (reading Birdy's snide critiques is as much fun as being a fly on the wall in a teachers' lounge filled with burned-out Comp. 101 instructors), it's hard to stay on her side. And sometimes Birdy is just mean, harshing on the "enormous nose and bad acne" of a drippy colleague. While there is a grittiness here -- especially believable in a fellow-outcast connection Birdy makes with a pregnant teenager -- the novel has the aimless feel of depression: vague and bitter.