Bookshelf: Humans behave badly in ‘Now You Know It All’

North Carolina author Joanna Pearson’s 2nd book wins Drue Heinz Literature Prize.
Joanna Pearson is author of "Now You Know It All."
Courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Press

Credit: University of Pittsburgh Press

Credit: University of Pittsburgh Press

Joanna Pearson is author of "Now You Know It All." Courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Press

One of the books that almost escaped my attention this year is “Now You Know It All” (University of Pittsburgh Press, $23) by Joanna Pearson, and what a mistake that would have been. Winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, this short story collection of 11 taut tales published in October kept me riveted, thanks to a dark, twisty thread of foreboding that runs through it.

Considering the psychological cat-and-mouse games at play in these stories, it comes as no surprise that the author, a North Carolina native based in Chapel Hill, is a psychiatrist. She’s created a fascinating cast of characters who are vividly drawn. Check out this description of the supervisor of a pediatric mental health facility: “Tawny had short, chic steel-gray hair and wore brightly patterned scarves. She had the air of someone who would be good in any number of hypothetical crises, able to staunch wounds or oversee a precipitous labor in the back seat of a taxi. She was warm and practical and fast-talking. She did not attempt to disarm reluctant clients but rather wore them down with her relentless competence.”

Many of the women and girls at the center of “Now You Know It All” are racked with a sense of inadequacy. They often lack self-awareness and emotional intelligence and either can’t read a room, or choose not to. When it comes to relationships with men, they tend to be passive and fatalistic. At the beginning of their stories, they are typically displaced or in transit or just generally rootless, with a tenuous hold over their circumstances or destinies. Sometimes they’re able to change their trajectory, but oftentimes not. Because they don’t have much to lose, their decisions and actions can be erratic and unexpected. That unpredictability factor is what helps ratchet up the tension.

Unfortunately, their rash decisions and blind compliance can propel them into situations that reveal the ugly side of human nature — either their own, or someone else’s, someone usually far more disturbing and formidable. And through it all, a low level thrum of unease and misapprehension is ever present, an affect that had me mentally looking over my shoulder as I read these stories, dreading what comes next.

While touring Europe on a research grant with a platonic friend she’s grown to loathe, a college student halfheartedly consummates the relationship and lies about birth control. Another college student spends a summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working for a volunteer program that houses her with a wealthy family. Rumors that the father killed a young woman in the home inexplicably draws her closer to him. Two young girls spending the summer with their grandmother in the country put their own lives in danger when they investigate the rumor that there’s a boy tied up behind the neighbor’s barn. A mother is so desperate to believe her troubled teenage son wants her to throw him a child’s-style birthday party that she unknowingly sets into a motion a horrible tragedy.

Several stories draw from current events, including the coronavirus pandemic and the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. “Darling” is the story that resonated most with me. It tells the chilling story of a woman who has recently escaped from an Epstein situation. She’s returned to her hometown, working the same job in a greasy diner she’d had after high school when an elegant older woman invited her to leave that hicksville for a glamorous life in New York. Upon Darling’s return, she reconnects with her high school boyfriend, Clyde, who’s now an attorney, but a small-town one with more debt than income. A promising exchange suggests the potential for a happy ending, but those are few in “Now You Know It All.”

One haunting story that possibly ends on a hopeful note is “The Field Glasses.” Eleanor has settled into life as “old maids” with her twin sister Clara, who their dead mother euphemistically called “overwrought.” In truth, Clara is so unhinged it’s possible she’s roaming the woods biting young children. As horrifying as that is, it becomes apparent as the story unfolds that the crimes Clara has committed against her devoted sister are far more devastating.

A worthy acolyte of Flannery O’Connor, Pearson trades in dark character studies punctuated by alarming events. They are set mostly in Southern suburbs and small towns, which are rendered with precise authenticity. And while Pearson never crosses the line into Southern gothic territory, she walks right up to it and flirts with it in a way that delights my deep-seated love of stories that examine the dark underbelly of human nature when it’s exposed to the light.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You can contact her at and follow her on Twitter at @svanatten.