“Jaws of Life” by Laura Leigh Morris

Hello, Story366! I hope you’re having a great Wednesday. Today is May 2, the second day  of National Short Story Month, and here I am, writing about a short story. Brings to mind this time last year, how I made a plan to do a Story366 entry every day during May—you know, to celebrate—as I’d only done a few up to that point in 2017. I took some time off after the rigors of the everyday 2016 schedule, so I wanted to catch up, read some books. Come May, I got off to a great start, doing an entry the first four or five or six days. Then something came up and I didn’t do one one day. Then finals and grading happened, and I didn’t do another entry that month, more or less spitting in the face of National Short Story Month. So sorry, NSSM!

I’m doing an entry today without making any grandiose plans, just reading and writing when I can. National Short Story Month doesn’t get as much press or fanfare as National Poetry Month, as it’s newer and we don’t have a famous story first line—like the poets do with Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month”—to mark May as the occasion (or am I wrong about that?). In fact, I wouldn’t know anything about National Short Story Month if it weren’t for inexhaustible Dan Wickett, who really goes all out on his Emerging Writers Network blog, fighting the good fight for stories, as he always has. Since stories are probably the most important thing to me outside of family, the Cubs, and well spiced meat dishes covered in melted cheese, I can help spread the excitement, tell everyone to read stories this month, and make some pretty good recommendations.

Last night I picked up Jaws of Life by Laura Leigh Morris, her debut collection that’s fresh out from Vandalia Press. Laura took some online workshops from me a decade or so ago and I’ve been following her career ever since. I’m of course thrilled for her that this collection has been published, as Laura has always had a lot of talent and has worked very hard to learn her craft. The stories in Jaws of Life mostly take place in Morris’ home state of West Virginia, and for the most part, are stories about regular West Virginians, working-class ilk, who run into particular predicaments, or as we like to call them in the story world, conflicts. Morris masterfully implements interesting people and interesting predicaments, time after time, finding her heroes en medias res, prime to make decisions that will affect the stories’ outcomes. What I’m describing here is a rather standard storytelling technique, sure, but it’s what Morris excels at, what made me gobble these stories up, one after another, when I really should have gone to bed.

There’s a lot of highlights in Jaws of Life, including the lead story, “Frackers,” about woman who’s sold her land to a fracking outfit, only to rebel against them, and their sleep-depriving floodlights, via a ninja costume and BB gun. “Fat Bottomed Girls” plays around with perspective a bit and has some memorable  images. “The Tattoo” is a playful relationship story. Still, Morris has chosen “Jaws of Life” as her title story, and since it’s a story I like, maybe the most of any in the book, I’m writing about that.

“Jaws of Life” is about Harold, a seventy-year-old guy whose wife, Iris, has Alzheimer’s. Iris is starting to forget things more frequently, including Harold, and the story begins with Iris forgetting a doctor’s appointment. Iris’ disease hasn’t quite reached the point where she’s rejecting Harold, becoming upset by his presence (i.e., a stranger in her midst), but she has recently wandered in the middle of the night, forcing Harold to put padlocks on the doors. They head out to the appointment in Harold’s truck, another step toward a long and darkening road.

Only, when Harold and Iris get to the office, Iris in the nurses’ hands, Harold makes a decision: He leaves. He makes an excuse about needing his phone from his truck. Perhaps, when Harold makes this lie, it’s not a lie, as he has forgotten his phone and he thinks that he could use it during Iris’ hour-long appointment. When Harold gets to his truck, however, he’s already made up his mind that he’s going to get inside, maybe just to chill; when he finds himself driving away, perhaps he’s just going for a ride, that he’ll be back within the hour, no one really noticing he’s gone. Soon, though, Harold has gone too far to make it back in time and he’s officially abandoned his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife at the hospital.

Morris could have spent the rest of the story justifying Harold’s action, explaining to us how Harold doesn’t have the make-up to deal with Iris’ condition, or some other way to justify Harold driving off. That would have been a story, for sure, but Morris wisely steers clear of that, as really, there’s no way to make that work: Harold’s just a bad guy here. Morris also tells us, in this same stretch, how Harold and Iris met, years earlier: At a widow’s/widower’s support group. Nice, right? Sort of, except that Iris’ husband had just died but Harold had never been married: He was just trolling the widow support group. Maybe the guy who picks up women at this type of place isn’t necessarily the same guy who abandons his sick wife at the hospital, but that’s where we are with Harold, a complex protagonist, for sure.

It takes Morris about half of her story to get to this point, and so far, we haven’t even gotten to the titular jaws of life yet, As a story enthusiast, I firmly believe in that age-old philosophy of Chekhov’s jaws of life, that if you title a story “Jaws of Life,” you gotta feature someone cut out of their car sooner or later or I’ll call bullshit. The only question becomes, will the wreck involve Harold, or will it involve someone else? Harold himself narrowly avoids the accident, but the little Miata behind him, which slams on its brakes right after Harold slams on his, isn’t so lucky: A big truck climbs up the back of the tiny car, crushing it like a soda can, its driver still inside.

Despite Harold’s recent cowardice, it’s admirable how he doesn’t hesitate to jump out of his truck and tend to the mess behind him—he’s spied an arm sticking out of the twisted metal, which in no regards is a good sign. Harold is relieved to get an answer when he calls inside the wreck, a voice that belongs to Angie, the unfortunate driver who is trapped and has become the sardined focus of the story.

As you might guess, the jaws of life eventually find their way onto the page, but “Jaws of Life” isn’t really about that drama, whether or not some sort of emergency personnel get Angie out in time. The story is about Harold still, how he faces adversity, how he relates to humans, and whether or not anything that happens can redeem him. Remember, Iris is probably finishing her appointment around this time, and while Harold might be distracted by the accident, by Angie—certainly, he’ll have to make statements, something that will take up time, something Harold could use to justify his absence—the nurses at Iris’ doctor’s office are going to start looking for him. Iris may start to panic. Maybe Harold has temporarily forgotten about all that, and maybe we readers have, too. But that’s what this story is fundamentally about: How these incidents relate to each other, how they play off each other, how they form off our expectations and judgments.

“Jaws of Life” is a well written story, one that makes some really interesting choices—I particularly like the support group detail, that Harold was posing just to score a special ladyfriend. It’s a traditional story, for sure, and as I noted when I wrote about David Armstrong earlier this year, it’s almost experimental to be a realist in today’s increasingly fabulist literary landscape. Morris’ stories are refreshing in that way, tales of real people being real, faced with real situations, forced to make real choices. It’s fundamental, but fundamentals work: I liked each and every story I read in Jaws of Life. I’m proud of Laura for writing this book, an exceptionally solid debut, a great choice to kick off National Short Story Month.

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“The Paper Life They Lead” by Patrick Crerand

Happy Monday, Story366! Thus ends a really wonderful weekend, one that saw three straight days of mid-seventies, slightly breezy weather, which led to three good walks with the boys in the woods and some good work done around the yard. I also found out I can follow the directions for installing a new screen door handle. Ours was toast and for about two months, the screen door out front had been blowing in the wind and banging against the frame, back and forth. Yet, the eleven-dollar kit I bought at Home Depot—I spared no expense—posed some challenges. The series of nine simple drawings—without any words—perhaps wasn’t quite as clear as the technical writer thought it was, and what seemed like a pretty easy job turned into me and the boys out on the porch for quite some time, them holding flashlights and screws while I swore a lot. Still, we prevailed: We now have a working door in front of the house. I explained to the boys that this door handle kit was like Legos for adults, and like regular, kid-targeted Legos, sometimes swear words are necessary to make the pieces fit together—sort of like magic words. Alakazam! and Abracadrabra! (i.e., “Goddamn it!” and “Die you cheap motherfucking piece of shit!”) I’m so handy.

Two weeks left in the semester and I’m on autopilot now for a week or two, between the workshops and thesis readings of mid-semester and all the final grading I’ll need to do after next week. I’m excited to be reading new stories and new books now, and today’s selection, The Paper Life They Lead by Patrick Crerand, out just last week from Arc Pair Press (their debut as well). Pat is a longtime friend of mine, having gone through Bowling Green’s MFA a few years after I did, when I was editing Mid-American Review and teaching seven thousand comp students a semester. In 2012, I stayed at Pat’s house when he invited me to read at St. Leo University back when Chicago Stories came out. Most importantly, Pat’s been a member of my BG fantasy baseball league since 2003, which bonds two people more than love, war, or literature combined.

I was happy to dive right into The Paper Life They Lead as soon as I could, and yesterday afternoon, I sat in my office and read the entire book. To be to clear, the book is only fifty-four pages long, with some pretty big type, so I’d call this more of a chapbook of fiction, I guess, but it’s really quite the chapbook. There are certainly highlights among the seven stories published in this short collection, including the lead piece, “PIT-DAY,” set aboard a commercial airliner, the pilot announcing to the passengers that he’s going to fly the plane up into space. The second piece, “The Glory of Keys,” is really fun, about this Pontiac Sunfire, sent to school in place of a tired high school kid, that becomes a star football player and valedictorian and … well, a car takes over a kid’s life and rises to glory—it’s a car. The back end of the collection is more a smattering of shorts, all effective in their own way, if not as concept-heavy as the first half of the book.

The third and title piece, “The Paper Life They Lead” is Crerand’s strongest story, beautifully conceived and written. It’s about a family who lives on a farm, the farm being the drawing of a farm on the mostly white packaging of Pepperidge Farm products. Being the consumer that I am—I’m a sucker for Milanos—I could kind of picture this farm as I read. Still, when it was apparent how important this farm image was to understanding the story, I’m jumped onto Google to get an exact shot, which is this:

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This image more or less matches up to what’s described in the story, as the mill plays a large role, and the fact that it’s winter is also important. There’s mention of a silo throughout the story, and in my mind, I’d imagined a silo in the logo, but no, no silo. In any case, this is the farmhouse the story refers to, is centered around, and on every package of Pepperidge Farm goods, it’s positioned somewhere between the company name and on top of a picture of the food product in the middle.

So, now you’re caught up. Crerand had a lot of possible ins to this story, the story of the people who live in this little farmhouse and how they relate to the Pepperidge Farm cookie empire. The easy in would have been to go with the guy from the commercials, the old-timer who used his old-timey voice and demeanor to describe delicious treats, ending each ad with his tagline, “Because Pepperidge Farm remembers!” This guy:

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I’ve never been 100 percent sure exactly what Pepperidge Farm remembers, what that has to do with cookies, if we’re supposed to think that the company’s fancier-than-usual cookies come from the era of string ties, straw hats, and giant phonograph speakers, an era long forgotten by those punks over at Keebler and Nabisco.

But Crerand doesn’t go there. Instead, in “The Paper Life They Lead,” he invents a surreal family who lives at that farmhouse, letting them loose upon the limited landscape. There’s a mom, a dad, and a son, and they seem to function on the farm, but within the limits of a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies—not that they know they’re on package (Crerand could have gone there, too), but rather, there’s a limit to their landscape and everything is white. The family exists in some Depression-era nightmare version of a farm, the work constant and grueling, the chores starting before sun up and extending until late at night, when everyone more or less collapses from exhaustion. It’s an intense existence that Crerand portrays, so much so, the dad has his son sleep in the barn, live in the barn, so he can keep watch over the animals—the kid even has to work while he’s asleep! The mom, who seems to bake all day while the men work the land, tries to ease her son’s life by sneaking him cookies, which the dad doesn’t approve of, as cookies are too sweet and they make you soft.

So, that’s the basic setup of “The Paper Life They Lead.” The title comes from something the dad repeats to the mom and the son, what he says whenever they dream of life off of the farm, start imagining an existence that doesn’t involve baking and jarring cookies or grinding flour, raising dairy cattle, and all the other tasks necessary for cookie farming. The dad keeps everyone on task, but unfortunately, the son dreams of life off the farm, what happens outside the confines of a package, beyond the barriers. He dreams of some Edenesque land, filled with free-roaming beasts, while the dad insists that there are no beasts beyond the edge, just a void. The son best keep up with his chores, lest he … well, what do you threaten a kid with when he already lives in the barn and slaves all day, farming cookie-making supplies?

“The Paper Life They Lead” isn’t a terribly long story, and I’ve already given away the set up as well as most of the plot. Further complications push the envelope between the father’s stubbornness and his son’s curiosity, and really, that’s what this story is about, the old guard working to prevent the future, keeping things they way they’ve always been; the dad’s simply ensuring that traditions will carry on, even past his time on this earth (or package). It almost makes me think that old man from the old commercials is the dad, or maybe the son, that somewhere along the way, the family saw their fortunes turn, went corporate, and exploded, and the mom’s delectable recipes making them rich; some marketing VP, inspired by the cranky old founder, used the dad’s (or son’s) image—or maybe even the man himself—to bring that sense of tradition to the company. Why not? One competitor uses elves in a tree, and the other uses … whatever Nabisco uses (i.e., Oreos, aka, legal crack) to sell its products.

I admire the ingenuity in “The Paper Life They Lead,” how Crerand was inspired by something so oddly inspiring and made so much out of it. It’s a wacky idea, sure, but it’s Crerand’s execution that really makes his story work. The description of the daily labor, the stark landscape, and the general hopelessness of these characters’ existence is straight out of Steinbeck, the bleakness so vivid, those cookies jarred in the farmhouse cellar are long-forgotten—and I really like cookies. Crerand’s choices become the real art here, his ability to make them work so convincingly. A story with a premise like this could be merely a joke in the wrong hands, but Crerand’s commitment steers him clear of all that, into much better territory, much more effective fiction.

I like the stories in The Paper Life They Lead, especially this title story and “The Glory of Keys,” one of a few stories Crerand has placed in McSweeney’s. That seems to be Crerand’s aesthetic, or one of them, anyway, the type of well executed, clever hipsterism often found in Dave Eggers’ quarterly concern. As a somewhat clever hipster myself, I mean that as a compliment, Crerand’s voice fresh and fun, his post-Post-Modern ideas as revelatory of our human conditions as any sort of realism. The Paper Life They Lead is a solid but short debut—I’m eager what else this author has up his sleeve.

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“The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado

A good Wednesday to you, Story366! I didn’t post last week after posting twice the previous week, making my inconsistency this year pretty damn consistent. Lots of big events have kept me from this marvelous stack of books on my desk, including a reading at MSU by Walter Bargen, followed five days later by a reading event featuring Sam Ligon and Kate Lebo, kind of a warm-up for one of their Pie & Whiskey events up in Columbia for the Unbound Book Festival. They didn’t go all-out in Springfield with twenty just-baked pies and free shots of whiskey, but they did read from their anthology and we did have some local Springfield pie. The next day I drove up to Columbia and read at the real-thing event, which was as much fun as I’ve ever had at a reading, due to the pie and whiskey, yes, but also because of the really awesome lineup, which included Phong Nguyen, Gabriel Fried, Dana Levin, Steve Yarbrough, Kate NuernbergerNina Mukerjee, Robert Lopez, Sam and Kate, and the Unbound creator and coordinator, Alex George. I dragged myself from Columbia the next morning at 6 to be back to teach my workshops—the last of the year!—and then go camping for a couple of days and nights with my oldest boy and his Scout cronies. Lots of great readings events, topped off/balanced by some time in the woods. A good week, but not a lot of time for blogging.

It hurt, too, because I knew today’s book, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (out from Graywolf) was up next. I’d carried it around in my bag since I posted on Christopher Allen’s book two weeks ago. I’ve been anxious to get into this collection, as the buzz around it has been all that. It seemed to be the book to get at AWP—I missed Machado’s signing at the Graywolf table. Just the other night, while out to dinner with Sam and Kate, my colleague, Jen Murvin, brought it up, and in fact, had her copy with her at the restaurant to read while she waited. Monday, I told my GA, Tay, that she could pick any story to teach our class the last day of the semester and without hesitation, she said she wanted to teach “The Husband Stitch.” It’s the lead story from Her Body and Other Parties, what I’ll focus on today.

It was an abnormally tough choice, writing about “The Husband Stitch” over the other stories in the collection, mainly because this book is full of great stories that would be easy to write about. In fact, I made it much further into Her Body and Other Parties than I do most Story366 books (at least pre-post), as I kept reading and reading, leaving myself only the last three stories for the (near) future. Aside from “The Husband Stitch,” there’s a cool story second up called “Inventory” that starts a bit like “Lust” by Susan Minot, but then finishes quite differently than “Lust” by Susan Minot. Another piece, “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” a sixty-pager, which is a love letter … of sorts … to the long-running NBC staple. “Real Women Have Bodies” was another possibility, a literally haunting story about a prom dress store in a mall, which would have been a great choice, too. In short, this is a remarkable book of stories and I’m not surprised it was a National Book Award finalist.

“The Husband Stitch” has so much going on, so much going for it, I’m not sure where to begin. As the lead story, it solidly introduces Machado’s themes and motifs and voice. The story is about a woman (which, from the book’s title, could be assumed), a woman who is hyper-aware of her standing in this particular setting, Machado employing a really close first person. The protagonist, who is unnamed in the story, offers an intimate tour of her life, starting with the moment she spies her soon-to-be husband at a party, tracing her life and their relationship all the way up to their son’s departure for college. It’s a long, ambitious story, but really, that’s not even close to the half of it.

Along with that central storyline, Machado includes some devices that make this story even more interesting, unlike anything I’ve come across. The story actually starts with some stage directions, the narrator instructing we readers—if we read the story aloud—to assign particular voices to each character: “ME: as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same.” and “THE BOY WHO WILL GROW INTO A MAN, AND BE MY SPOUSE: robust with serendipity,” etc. Between scenes, we get more directions—if we’re reading the story aloud—on how to read each forthcoming part, directions that begin to include some pretty drastic actions. I’m not 100 percent why this particular story emphasizes how the story should be read out loud—it could just be a device Machado thought of when writing this particular story—but the meta quality of it all, which pulls us from the narrative, seems overly intentional. It’s an interesting effect. It would be super-interesting to hear her read this aloud, to see how she would handle the stage directions to herself as she was reading her story, which is partly about reading this story.

Machado also includes several interesting tall tales/legends/bits of folklore/anecdotes between scenes, vignettes that are always prefaced with something like “There is a story ….” Then Machado tells us a story. It’s easy, as readers of short fiction, to attempt to connect these anecdotes to what’s going on in the forward-moving narrative, which isn’t hard, Machado’s themes in both these side stories and the main story very similar. Machado favors female characters, puts them in precarious situations, adds vibrant details, all leading toward unsavory conflicts. All three threads—that main story, the side stories, and the reading directions—come together to make a lush, complex whole. Now I can’t imagine this story without all three elements; it’s what this story is, part of why so many people are taking about it.

Certainly, though, not the only reason. I realize I’ve more or less skipped over discussing the plot of this story, and more so, all these themes I keep mentioning—as I’ve pointed out this year, I’m a bit Story366 rusty. In any case, all of the stories I’ve read in Her Body and Other Parties feature strong female protagonists, all of whom are confidently sexual, all of whom deal with the victimhood of women, often at the hands of the men around them; it should be understood, though, that Machado doesn’t portray any of her protagonists as victims, not in the helpless sense. The women in these stories deal: They face conflict, but then make strong decisions and perform strong actions. Our hero in “The Husband Stitch” embodies this more than any other character in the collection.

Oh, did I mention the ribbons? And how they tie into the story? (Ugh, pun.) I think I’ll leave that for you to discover. But there’s ribbons.

And those ribbons are connected—thematically and as an image—to the meaning behind the title. Again, I won’t give that away, what a “husband stitch” is, but I went into the story not knowing and when Machado’s narrator explained it, I was pretty horrified. How it plays into this story, especially with how Machado handles it, leaves a deafening impact. Macho’s themes aren’t light, aren’t always easy to read. But I’m more than sure that’s the point.

Overall, “The Husband Stitch” has as much going for it as any story I’ve read, as both a fiction writer’s exercise (Meta! Unrelated anecdotes! Techniques!) and an honest, intense reading experience, coming at us in a voice that we haven’t quite heard before. I got that same feeling from all of the stories in Her Body and Other Parties: writing and content equally well rendered. This book has gotten a lot of attention this past year, and deservedly so. It’s remarkable in any way you’d want a collection to be remarkable, giving a reader everything stories can give.

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“Other Household Toxins” by Christopher Allen

Good morning, Story366! Today is a beautiful day if there ever was one, in the sixties, sunny, dry, birds chirping outside my window. In every sensible world, I’d be outside, doing something with the youngest, who doesn’t get on a bus for school until 12:15. He could ride his bike back and forth on our block. We could have a catch. We could look for butterflies. We could clean the gutters, him dropping leaves and helicopters and dead birds down to me from up on a ladder. You know, father-son bonding stuff.

As I noted the other day while posting on Kerry Neville, however, I’m pretty stoked to read all these books I picked up at AWP last month, to write about them, to keep Story366 trucking along. Along with a half-dozen more books I picked up in Tampa, my Save-for-Later sub-Cart on Amazon—how I keep track of which books I need to get, read, and write about—is up to ninety-three books, including some that have been there for a couple of years, some that I added after discovering them at Barnes & Noble this past weekend, and then a whole bunch more I found on this cool list last night. What that boils down to is short stories are awesome, presses are publishing collections, and I want to read every damn one of them.

Today’s entry comes from Matter Press‘s Other Household Toxins by Christopher Allen. Chris is a cohort of mine from the SmokeLong Quarterly world, Chris serving as the Managing Editor and me (along with the Karen) as Interviews Editor. I’ve only met Chris on a couple of occasions, but have corresponded with him at least sixty thousand times. Most of those correspondences go something to the tune of Hey, Mike, we’re finishing the new issue up and we really need those interviews, and then I’m like, I didn’t send those to you the other day? Really? Well, I’m going into my office tomorrow (pretending I don’t have email at home or on my phone) and I’ll resend. So sorry this happened again! Stupid technology! And then I start finally start assigning the interviews, start thinking about my responsibility for the first time. I can usually fake an Internet outage to give myself another half day, fake some medical procedure (by Chris’ count, I’ve had eleven vasectomies and ten reversals), and have rushed to the hospital for the birth of another child—Chris thinks Karen and I are the Duggars of Southwest Missouri. For the next issue, if I’m behind, I might track Chris down in Europe—where he lives somewhere—and set off a pinch, like in Ocean’s 11 or Captain America: Civil War, just to give me an extra day.

But when I saw that Chris’ debut collection was coming out, I had to grab a copy, have Chris sign it at the SmokeLong Quarterly table in Tampa, and put it on the short stack of books to cover here. A month later, here we are, me reading this flash collection last night and this morning. Lots of great pieces to choose from, published in the widest array of lit mags I’ve ever seen a writer showcased. I really loved pieces like “Sisters,” “When Susan Died the First Time,” and “The Pain Taster,” but because I always do this, am going to write about the title story, “Other Household Toxins,” the last piece in the collection.

I like “Other Household Toxins” for a lot of reasons, but firstly, it’s one of the better title stories I’ve seen in a while in the way in encompasses/represents/symbolizes/speaks for the collection as a whole. In the story, the title is taken from a line that the protagonist says to someone in a dream, referring to the general sense of the phrase, poisons that we all keep on hand, bottles of bleach and furniture polish, bags of moth balls, disgusting Brussels sprouts waiting to be cooked so they can emit their foul odor. In the big picture, Allen is more or less talking about the people we live with, those folks around our house who bring pain and suffering and conflict and general annoyance to our lives. Reading through this book, it’s hard to nail down one particular theme—there’s a lot of stories—but the characters in these fictions seem most troubled, most bothered, and most hurt by the ones they love, as the song (sorta) goes. Aren’t we all?

Since this is a flash collection, the stories are of course short, so I won’t do much of a rundown, not without risk of major spoilage. “Other Household Toxins” the story is about this guy, unnamed, who endeavors on sorting out a dream, one that seems to consistently involve a girl, a tree, some smoke, and a squirrel. The speaker here is constantly returning to this dream, and because of the nature of dreams and how we remember them (or manipulate them), the dream keeps changing. Maybe it’s because he has the dream all the time and it varies with each incarnation, or it’s because he can’t fully recall exactly what happened that one time.

In any case, the main action of the dream seems to be happening at a funeral or wake, or maybe just a gathering after someone has died. The protagonist’s father is weeping. Everyone’s weeping. The protagonist, to escape the weeping, goes out back—this seems to be happening in a farmhouse, something out of Grant Wood—and encounters the aforementioned quartet: the girl, the tree, the smoke (which, by the way, tends to come from a joint), and the squirrel. The protagonist engages these elements—mainly the girl—and from there, that’s where things diverge. Sometimes the tree looks one way, sometimes another. That sort of thing.

And that’s really as far as I can go without divulging too much (if I haven’t already), as the dream, as dreams tend to do, gets really strange, feeling mercurial and symbolic. And then, just like that, “Other Household Toxins” and Other Household Toxins is done.

While I’m not a fan of dream stories—that’s on the Nah … list in my classes—I oddly love meta-investigations of dreams, someone trying to figure out what haunts them, someone cyclically distraught, someone recognizing how powerless they are in the midst of their own consciousness (and conscience). Allen handles that exquisitely in this story, and in a way, that’s what this book is, Allen returning, time and again, to misfortune, quirk, and anomaly in his stories, different yet unique versions of an exercise. I’m not trying to say Allen has worked through a nightmare by writing this book, exorcising some recurring vision he can’t shake. I mean, no more than the rest of us writers do, anyway.

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“The Lionman” by Kerry Neville

What’s up, Story366? Look at me, writing another entry after just posting one a week ago.  I’ve gotten my hands on a lot of good books recently, including a big stash at AWP, so I have a stack on my desk staring me down. I also was at Barnes & Noble this past weekend and ran into four or five brand-new collections that I want to pick up. In short, I’ve been energized by all these stories surrounding me and really couldn’t wait to get back to it, make another post. My quest to review every short story collection ever has been reinvigorated!

Today’s collection, Remember to Forget Me by Kerry Neville, comes to us from Braddock Avenue Books, more specifically their Alleyway Books imprint. I like the books from this press. I’ve reviewed four so far, an eclectic and solid stable of story writers. Their editor, Jeffrey Condran, stopped by the Moon City table at AWP and dropped off a couple of titles (Note: Editors, this is a fantastic way to get your books reviewed at Story366) and I’m glad to have found Neville’s book in the pile. I’ve read a story or two by her before—all of the pieces appeared in prominent lit mags before the collection came out—but was, as always, was pleased to have her book in my hands.

I read a few stories from this collection, starting with the title story, a piece about a guy whose wife has Alzheimer’s and is living in a facility for such folks, the guy having to deal with the fact that the love his life and 46-year partner no longer knows who he is, and, in fact, is frightened by him and screams whenever he’s around. The second story I read, “The Hitman of Bucharest,” is similar, this time about a guy living on Fulbright in Bucharest not long after his wife has committed suicide. The third story I read, “The Lionman,” the last story in the book, read a lot differently, almost as if by a different writer, and immediately, I knew it would be the one I focused on here.

“The Lionman” is about the Lionman, a then-called freak in an early twentieth-century Brooklyn circus named Dreamland. The Lionman a guy short in stature completely covered by hair and his job at the circus is to sit in a cage and growl at people as they walk by. Some people toss him scraps of food (which I’m guessing he has to eat), the smarter folks seeing what’s going on and tossing him some coins instead. It’s been his existence since he was five, his birth mom selling him to the circus when she grew tired of shaving him, of trying to deal with the situation—I should probably note that the Lionman’s father was mauled to death by a lion in the Central Park zoo a month and a half before the Lionman was born. Of course, this isn’t how genetics work and has nothing to do with why the Lionman is covered in hair, but it certainly contributes to his name and his mother’s inability to raise him, on her own and convinced that the pregnancy was cursed by her husband’s grizzly demise.

But all that comes to us in backstory. The story starts with the Lionman as an adult, a lifelong performer, and focuses more on the Lionman’s attempts to be more normal, to find human affection and interaction. In some ways, he gets more interaction than anyone needs, people staring at him and poking at him and heckling him all day, the bright spots those people who see him for what he is—a person with a shitty job and a shitty affliction (hypertrichosis, according to Wikipedia, aka, “werewolf syndrome”) and look at him with pity and compassion instead of fear or revolt.

That’s not really good enough for the Lionman, however, and it shouldn’t be. There are several mentions of visits to prostitutes, and even those aren’t exactly tender affairs, his contact with them often limited; the circus nurse assumes he has lice and that he scares the children. At one point, he seems to have had a relationship with Violetta, the Half-Woman, another performer (born without arms and legs), with whom the Lionman smokes and rides Ferris wheels, but perhaps not much else.

Hope comes in the form of Hildy, the circus owner’s daughter, who takes a shine to the Lionman, even finds out his real name for us: Stephan Bibrowski (Hey! The Lionman’s Polish!). Hildy senses what any decent person would, that Stephan has feelings, that he might not want to live in a rusty cage and have people spit at him.

Hildy gets the Lionman in at the Incubator, this barn at the edge of the property that holds a bunch of preemies, a collection of babies born way too early, tiny things either born in the circus or perhaps left there. There, once Hildy convinces the nurse there is no lice, Stephan can hold and help care for the needy infants.

Hold up for a major sidebar: Honestly, I didn’t know why these tiny babies were at the circus in a building dubbed “The Incubator.” As I read—and I read this story three times to make sure I wasn’t missing anything—I assumed that they were either born in the circus, the children of the “freaks,” or were left there by ordinary citizens who simply didn’t want their preemies and for some reason gave them to the circus. Curious, I looked up “circus preemies” and found this really informative article that told me that this was in fact a real thing, that Dreamland, too, was a real part of Coney Island, as was Hildy and her father. Dreamland ran a free-to-parents incubator nursery where Brooklynites and others could see their premature babies come to full term, which seems like a really great and human thing (maybe to counter the fact the same circus put a bunch of humans in cages and called them “freaks”). All in all, this is historical fiction—I learned something today!

And, yes, of course, I checked: the Lionman was real, too:

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Even more historical!

How does the realness—which I’ve discovered as I write this post—change my reading of the story? It clears a few things up, I suppose, as I’d feared the worst, that Dreamland was taking unwanted preemies and grooming them into its future cage-dwellers. Glad that wasn’t it (but then again, if this was all fiction, what would it matter?).

A big, dramatic event concludes “The Lionman,” and as always, I won’t reveal that here, though it adds a rousing, redeeming feel to the story. I liked the story before I knew about its historical nature and suppose I like it more now. Either way, in “The Lionman” Neville does what she seems to do in all these stories (or at least the ones I’ve read), and that’s pinpoint the apex of her protagonists’ pain, then write about how they deal. Whether it’s the guy whose wife is suddenly “with” another man in her Alzheimer’s home or the guy who’s trying to raise a son in a foreign country after his wife kills herself or it’s this circus performer who’s treated like an animal, Neville seems familiar with pain and suffering, or is at least able to project it onto the page. It takes the form of living people and their interesting yet devastating situations. I.e., short stories.

“The Lionman,” unlike the other, more contemporary stories, is also written in another style, as if Neville is mimicking a more Modern approach, her other works feeling more contemporary in diction and structure, employing more conventional linearity and psychic distance as well.

Is this the most rambling of all my Story366 posts? Maybe. Maybe I’m out of practice, but the long and the short of it is I liked reading Neville’s stories, admired how she was able to tackle themes and plots that I can’t bring myself to write about. How she humanized and individualized people who are easy to peg, easy to take for granted as tropes. That’s what I’m guessing Remember to Forget Me is all about, the people who are forgotten—after all, that title, in the title story, isn’t referring to the person who has the actual memory loss ,but the person who’s left behind: He’s the one who who is being instructed to forget (easier said than done, we find out, time after time). Three stories in, this collection seems to be about the people left behind, what they face in the wake of their despair, and how they soldier on. It’s a good theme for a good book, one I’m better for having picked up.

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“Lost-and-Found Girls” by David Armstrong

Hello there, Story366 loyalists! Yet again, it’s been awhile since I’ve blogged a new entry, which seems to be how I start all of these. Every time I do one, I think I’ll do another the next day, or maybe one a week, but then I don’t. My goal in life today was to get the boys to school, meet with a student I was scheduled to meet with, and write this entry, and it looks like I’m three for three. I probably should have included “get the boys from school” on that list. Fear not: I figure they’re so jacked up on Easter candy and will be coming down soon, they’ll be needing more. They’ll find their way home, to their baskets.

The majority of the distraction since last time has been Moon City Press-related, as I put out a couple of titles, Moon City Review 2018 and Undoing by Kim Magowan, which isn’t easy, putting out two titles at once. I do the same thing every fall, but it’s harder in the spring, as there’s an actual deadline, us getting copies of the books to AWP, which is the other thing that kept me from blogging (though last year, I wrote my Jensen Beach entry at the MCP book fair table). The good news is, both the new MCR and Kim’s book were done in time to ship to Tampa, where we gave away three hundred copies of the journal and sold a box and a half of Kim’s book, her debut (love seeing authors with their first books!). Overall, I dug Tampa a whole lot, both as a city and as an AWP site, putting it in the top five places at which I’ve attended that conference (18 of the last 19 years). I liked Denver a whole lot, how the conference center just poured into the downtown. I liked Austin a lot for the same reason, and how SXSW was there, in the same conference center, at the same time. And of course I loved having AWP in Chicago, three times now, especially since I had books debut two of those years, including my first book, which was pretty special. I ate good food in Tampa, met a lot of friends, had some good drinks, such as a Big Al’s Window Cleaner

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… which we all thought was going to be some badassmotherfucker of a drink that stripped the shit off our stomach walls—it ended up being really fruity and delicious. That’s all I can ask for in a conference: friends, food, and fruitiness. Portland, here we come.

For today’s entry, I read from David Armstrong‘s collection, Reiterations, a recent (2014) winner of the New American Fiction Prize from New American Press. I’d not read anything by Armstrong before, so I was eager to see what this author had to offer, a guy who’s the author of another collection, Going Anywhere, and a chapbook, Missives From the Green Campaign.

I read the first three stories from Reiterations, which is cut into six Roman-numbered and titled sections, two stories per section. The section titles run along the lines of “In which is discussed the violence of men and the strength of women,” the first section, and “In which is discussed disenfranchisement and alienation,” the second section, etc. I’m writing about the first story, “Lost-and-Found Girls,” which is in that first section (of course), and is surely about the violence of men (several men) and the strength of women (or at least one woman). It’s the tale of Heath, a middle-aged small-town newspaper man whose only daughter, Amelia, has run away, has been gone for years, no word, no trace, little hope to see her again. Heath and his wife, Shannon, are devastated, and before long, begin to grow apart, their existences dwindling at the same time. Heath, who refused to work at his father-in-law’s farm, instead purchasing a tiny paper. This worked, for a while, when Heath was young and happy and all-in, but after Amelia’s disappearance, the paper dwindles along with Heath and his marriage. His farmer father-in-law (think of William H. Macy’s father-in-law in Fargo) is ready to wring his neck, blaming him for his Shannon’s misery and Amelia’s disappearance. Heath is a pathetic protagonist, to be sure.

Still a talented reporter and investigator, Heath sets out on finding Amelia after law enforcement officials and private eyes fail him. He inundates himself with Google search techniques and amongst his findings, he discovers a grisly set of murders. The murders are all of women, of various ages and backgrounds and geographical locations, with one consistency: Their remains are discovered underneath hotel room mattresses. Heath becomes obsessed with these cases, wondering if they’re connected (though it’s presented as unlikely by Armstrong), and eventually, assumes Amelia has fallen victim to this very fate. It doesn’t make sense, thousands of women disappearing every year and only a half dozen ever showing up in a mattress, but that’s the fiction here, Heath making this connection, unable to get it out of his head. Maybe it’s grief. Maybe it’s guilt. Whatever it is, it’s a very specific type of self-torture.

As their marriage gasps and wheezes, Heath proposes a trip to Shannon, a way to start over, Heath manipulating her to Las Vegas; uncoincidentally, it’s where a few of the mattress women have been discovered. In the guise of a vacation, Shannon seems to be smitten with Heath again, but we know Heath’s ulterior motive: He wants to see one of the crime scenes, make that physical connection to his obsession.

To make things more interesting, Armstrong has Heath pick up a hooker on his way to one of these aforementioned murder sites, a hooker who thinks she’s simply getting an old guy off, charging extra because it’s off the strip. The really beauty of this story, what makes is so compelling, is how Armstrong keeps Heath’s true intentions from us until the end: Is he going to kill Jezzebelle (the hooker) and stuff her body inside the box spring? Is he going to pretend she’s Amelia? Is he simply going to have sex with her (along with maybe one of the other options)? I won’t reveal what happens here, but for sure, the shit gets pretty intense.

Interspersed between Heath’s frontstory and backstory scenes are newspaper snippets of the murder reports, each victim’s name, age, place of discovery, and thumbnail biography presented for us to read, Armstrong basically gives us Heath’s bulletin board to peruse as we read the rest of the story. It’s a nice touch, as each vignette is a story on its own, tragic and creepy and foreboding all at once, making “Lost-and-Found Girls” an exhilarating read, one I enjoyed a whole lot.

I’m glad I got a chance to discover David Armstrong’s work, which seems to target pretty average people stuck in tense situations. Reiterations‘ second story, “French for Weaklings,” is about a woman traveling the backroads of Appalachian Ohio, her car breaking down, strangers coming upon her, the woman insisting she’s in control as we hear banjo music plucked in our heads. The third, “Eggs and Bacon and Coffee,” is about a small-town high school boy, abused and abandoned, who finds an outlet for his rage on the football field. I read so little realism these days—check my recent archives—it was refreshing to read this collection, to find a writer who has the talent to make something happen in the real world, to make it so compelling, to be in such control of what’s already out there, waiting to be fiction.

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“Bettering Myself” by Ottessa Moshfegh

Greetings, Story366! I hope you’re having a wonderful Saturday of President’s Day weekend. I remember during the actual Story366 two years, ago, me scouring through collections to uncover a story that had something to do with presidents, finding “Reagan’s Army in Retreat” by Jerry Gabriel, a story that really had nothing to do with President’s Day, but hey, it felt festive, anyway. This weekend, I’m with the oldest boy at Camp Arrowhead, roughing it, sort of, in a cabin for the weekend with five other adults and fourteen boys, all of them eating chips and playing Risk or their video games because it’s cold and rainy out and this is their “relaxation campout” because they worked hard at the Christmas tree lot late last year and that’s how Boy Scouts get rewarded, by having a game-filled, tentless campout. It’s how they unwind. How they get silly.

In between a couple of wet hikes, I got the chance to read a few stories from Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection Homesick for Another World, out last year from Penguin. I’ve been seeing people talk about Moshfegh’s work for a while, both this new collection and her novel, Eileen, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Today was the first day I have ever actually read her work, which was foolish, taking way too long for someone who’s made such a mark, who has the kind of word-of-mouth that she’s generated. I’m supposed to be on top of this shit.

I read the first three stories from Homesick for Another World, in order, and loved all of them equally, more or less, but am going to backtrack and write about the lead piece, “Bettering Myself,” because it’s the story that seems most representative of what Moshfegh seems to be doing in this collection, at least in this first hunk. “Bettering Myself “is about a thirty-year-old woman named Miss Mooney, an SAT math prep specialist working at a Catholic high school in New York. The story starts with her declaring that her classroom is on the first floor, near the nuns’ lounge, and that she uses the nuns’ bathroom to puke. A Catholic school-educated boy like me was hooked right off the bat, anything that includes nuns and the defamation of them or their properties. Anyway, Moshfegh also leads us further into the story, because we’re wondering if our hero is puking because she’s got the flu, because she’s got morning sickness, maybe because she’s on chemo, or because she’s been on a bender. It’s a couple of pages before we find out it’s the latter, that Miss Mooney is a boozehound of the highest order, an apt first character for what I know about this collection.

Drinking is just part of Miss Mooney repertoire, as she’s more or less an all-around self-destructive person, someone out to win a medal in self-destructing. On top of her drinking, she engages in random drug use, snorting a friend’s cheap cocaine even though she’s convinced it’s cut with laundry detergent. She engages in random unprotected sex with people she runs into here and there, then discusses it with her students, who never really asked. Miss Mooney isn’t only hurting herself, either. She’s also a terrible teacher, her students painfully inept at math; in order to cover herself, she has, for years, changed their standard test answers to the correct ones, just to keep her job, hundreds of kids looking like they’re better at math than they are. Miss Mooney is on a mission of total self-annihilation, easing the journey with substances. It seems it’ll be a matter of time before Miss Mooney either harms herself irrevocably, or simply loses her job at the Ukrainian Catholic school.

The title to this story, “Bettering Myself,” seems like it’s going to be ironic, but then Miss Mooney hears from her ex-husband, who’s coming to town and wants to meet for dinner and drinks. Our hero sees this as an opportunity. Despite her husband having moved away and moved on—he’s remarried with kids—Miss Mooney goes on a journey of self-improvement. Maybe she wants to reignite the spark. Maybe she’s looking for a one-night stand. Or maybe she just wants her ex to see her in her best state. She quits drinking, firstly, which immediately improves every aspect of her life.  She starts to try at her job. She’s less angry. She even eats a salad.

What happens when Miss Mooney meets her ex for dinner, I won’t reveal here, just to give you something to read. I will say the story surprised me, gave me a satisfying resolution, yet kept up with what I saw as a pattern for these first three stories. Moshfegh writes about fringe people, to say the least, characters who don’t necessarily subscribe to the values that most people subscribe to, nor do they apologize. The second story, “Mr. Wu,” chronicles the courtship between the titular character and a woman who works at the video arcade he frequents. Between attempts to muster the courage to talk to her, Mr. Wu visits a brothel uptown and mistreats prostitutes, having a proclivity for “the dumbest one you have.” In the next story, “Malibu,” a man sets up a date with a stranger by chance. Upon meeting her at her house for dinner, he declares, “Better do it before we eat,” hurrying her into sex, demeaning her before, during, and after. In short, the three protagonists I encountered are self-serving assholes, each more of an asshole than the one before.

What makes Moshfegh so good, so popular, as far as I can figure, is how well she handles voice, her characters not only uncaring and unrelenting, but completely oblivious to just how horrible of people they are. The guy in “Malibu” clearly cannot stand the woman who’s invited him into her home, yet he fucks her, insults her, then stays to eat her dinner (insulting her again), before leaving abruptly and never speaking to her again. Not once does he show a shimmer of regret, mostly because he’s not aware of there being anything to regret, anything to apologize for. He’s just wired that way. Mr. Wu can’t understand why the arcade woman isn’t attracted to him. And Miss Mooney doesn’t once wonder what will happen to her students when they move on, dumber than when they met her.

Several images and themes reoccur in the stories, a couple of characters suffering from bad acne, a couple of them favoring anal sex, two more with inexplicable rashes, the sort of overlap that helps connect these stories on a visceral level. Yet, even with all the ugliness, the stories have a free-wheeling, fun pace to them, precisely because the protagonists don’t give a shit, move from vice to vice without batting an eye. It’s entertaining, I surmise, to watch people in short stories destroy their lives, take others down with them, because they’re not real people, just characters in stories. Are there people like this in the real world? Sure. I don’t want to meet them. Or be in their wake.

But I’d love to hear about it, especially if Ottessa Moshfegh is the one doing the telling.

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“Least Resistance” by Wayne Harrison

I’m pretty sure today is Friday, but I’m not 100%. Really, I just had to look at a calendar to find out the day of the week: That’s how blissful this break time has been. Reading, writing, cooking, eating, and having massive Nerf gun battles with my boys. I know that I’m supposed to do stuff to make money, but, you know, if I could sustain my life—pay my bills, eat, travel, etc.—and not work? I would do that in a heartbeat.

Today is the … third? … day in a row that I’ve done a post and I’m really enjoying these new books. For one, it’s a relief to read something that’s not on 8.5 x 11″ white paper, things that need to write on with a pen. Maybe I’m still relaying wisdom and commentary for these posts, but at least it’s a change of pace: It’s not like Samantha Hunt or Meagan Cass are going to go back to their stories and revise because of anything I’ve said. That takes a little pressure off me. Plus, that white paper. Ugh.

Secondly, three books in three days have produced perhaps the three most different books I’ve read in any stretch, as Hunt and Cass’s books had their own particular aesthetics (described in those posts), and today’s focus, Wayne Harrison, is no different. Hunt’s stories are elegant masterpieces, all over the place in terms of perspective and theme. Cass’s ceaseless imagination make for an eclectic and fun ride. Harrison, however, is more of a callback to previous styles, more traditional stories in both telling and structuring. I won’t go so far to compare his work to Carver’s (which is so easy to do), but certainly, I thought of Carver’s direct contemporaries here, Tobias Wolff and especially Larry Brown. In any case, Harrison writes a solid, mean-ass story.

I read a few stories from Harrison’s Wrench, the most recent winner of the New American  Fiction Prize from New American Press. Since they were all solid, I could have written about any of them, and almost wrote about the title story, “Wrench,” though I’m going with the lead story instead. “Least Resistance” is a piece that back in the day was in The Atlantic and Best American Short Stories. I’m not sure if Harrison is “known” for a story, but if he was, this would probably be it, right? (And note, I’m pointing this out because I wish I was “known” for a story, for something as high profile as “Least Resistance” has perhaps been for Harrison.)

“Least Resistance” is the story of Justin, an almost-nineteen mechanic working in the garage of a regionally, and possibly nationally, famous hotrod guru, Nick Campbell. Nick inherited the business from an uncle some years back and moved with his wife, Mary Ann, from Oregon to take over. Magazines write stories about Nick’s prowess and middle-aged tough guys come in with their Iroc-Zs and Chargers to have Nick install upgrades, thousands of dollars to get a sweeter-sounding engine or a few more MPH. Justin admires the heck out of Nick, workships him, in fact, and is becoming his star pupil, leaping over Sammy, an older, more temperamental, and simpler guy.

Good setup for a story—don’t read too many set in garages (more on that soon)—but Harrison immediately complicates matters by the end of page two when he reveals that Justin has been carrying on with Mary Ann on his off days, fornicating on the living room sofa when they know Nick can’t leave the garage. Mary Ann, the older, wiser, and forbidden lover, has Justin smitten, despite some serious rules, like only doing it missionary-style and Justin never, ever entering Nick and Mary Ann’s bedroom. Still, Justin gets to spend his days frolicking with his boss’s wife, staying naked for hours on end, because, well, they’re going to keep going at it and clothes would only get in the way. For an eighteen year old, one apparently without scruples, it’s a fantasy come true.

Does Justin’s infidelity with his idol’s wife have anything to do with Nick’s recent fuck-ups? As of late, Nick has had a lot of rechecks come in, meaning those custom jobs guys pay him a lot of money to execute are pulling back into the garage, something pinging here, something leaking there. To me, who can change a tire and that’s about it, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but to these gear heads, Nick might as well have pissed in their cup holders. Soon, Nick’s reputation goes from go-to to nil, putting this business, livelihood, and marriage in jeopardy. The tension just gets thicker when Nick calls Justin, asking him about another botched job, and Justin is literally on top of his wife. Because this is a story, something’s got to give, right?

There’s more complications to come before any dam breaks, before we reach any sort of climax or resolution. I won’t reveal any of that here, though, as I want to leave something for you to discover. I will point out, however, that Harrison really sells the mechanic stuff, listing endless adjustments, ailments, and conditions that make it seem like a real mechanic is telling the story—and for good reason, because Harrison worked as a mechanic for five years before settling into life as a writer and professor (with a stop-off as a prison guard in between). One writing rule I have is never try to write from a military POV, as there’s no way that I, who has never served, could ever convince anyone I knew what I was talking about—veterans can smell and civilian poser a million miles away. The same could be said for mechanic stories. Maybe that’s what reminds me of Larry Brown, a fireman-turned-writer, his authentic-sounding fireman stories. That’s why I focus on middle-aged dorks in my fiction: Air-tight legitimacy. I got the street cred dripping off me, left and right.

Three stories into Wrench, I’m a fan of Wayne Harrison’s work, solid tales about working-class dudes trying to make their way … despite the fact they try their hardest to fuck things up. Harrison’s stories are about people earnestly trying to change, and from what I’ve seen, they do, in some ways, as trying hard will often get a result. These stories are existential in that way, Harrison’s protagonists sincere but limited, victims of their own choices, their own limitations, but also of the choices others make, of their predicaments. I found myself rooting for these heroes, wanting them to win out, but by the third story, had the distinct feeling they wouldn’t. That’s the world Harrison writes about, a world that’s a helluva place to visit, especially when led by such a talented guide.

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“The All-Mutant Soccer Team” by Meagan Cass

Hello there, Story366 loyalists! Look at me, posting two days in a row. It’s like 2016 all over again … if I just did this 364 more times. Won’t be doing that, but as mentioned in yesterday’s post on Samantha Hunt, this winter break free-time-a-thon is like the best thing in the world. I mean, it’s kind of like summer, only for one month, and, well, colder. I suppose there’s also more urgency to get things done over winter break than summer break, as there’s less time, but there’s also the end of the year/start of the year dynamic, me trying to get in as many posts as I can in 2017. Today is #16 on the year—far less than 366—and even if I finished as strongly as possible, I’d still only end up with 19 for 2017. So, not even the once-a-week schedule that I’d planned, but hey, we do what we can.

What kind of gets me about not doing more posts this year is that it means I haven’t read as many books, or as many new books, and going back to the start of this blog, that was always my original goal: read as many new books and discover as many new writers as I could. In a normal, blogless year, I’ve more than done that so far—I think all 16 entries in 2017 have been on new collections—but there’s certainly many more that I haven’t cracked, acquired, let alone heard of. After being ultra-caught up on the world of contemporary short fiction at the end of 2016, I’m yet again behind. Luckily, there’s all kinds of lists out there that at least tell me what I’ve missed, such as this from Paper Darts, a best-of for collections for 2017. and then there’s always the reliable Dan Wickett at Emerging Writers Network; Dan keeps a list of all the story collections that come out every year, so he’s kind of like that set of World Book Encyclopedias that was on the shelf in all my parochial school classrooms, at hand when I needed him (and often taken for granted).

The important thing is I’m enjoying collections now and enjoyed the heck out of one today, ActivAmerica by Meagan Cass, out from the University of North Texas Press as the most recent winner of their Katherine Anne Porter Prize last year. I’ve read a bevy of stories by Cass—she’s widely published in journals—and I’m happy that she has the collection out that she deserves. And she certainly delivers with this debut.

I read six stories in preparation for this post, a mix of longer/regular-sized stories and shorts, and liked everything I read. Cass has the ability to come up with weird and wonderful concepts, surely, such as today’s feature, “The All-Mutant Soccer Team,” but can also bend a realistic story, about more or less average people, into something peculiar and engaging as well. An example of this is the title story, “ActivAmerica,” about a middle-aged superstore employee engaged in a nationwide health program, basically making her run a mile a day, every day. Cass has the ability to pull her reader into her concept rather quickly, making each story an exciting adventure into a clear, fully realized world. She has some overlap in themes—people seem to get cancer in a lot of her stories—and they all seem to take place in and around Chappaqua, New York. Overall, though, this was the most fun I’ve had with a book in a while, as Cass was able to dazzle me with her creativity, characterization, and settings over and over again.

“The All-Mutant Soccer Team” had me thinking of the X-Men and that kind of mutant going in, but in this story, Cass is writing about the kind of mutant that results from too much nuclear waste in the local lake, nuclear waste that has turned everyone’s skin green or their teeth a glowy blue or has given kids flippers instead of hands. The corporation responsible won’t pay for the clean-up, but instead agrees to pay half of everyone’s medical bills. The logical answer, of course, is for everyone to move, but then we wouldn’t have a story, would we? Plus, the take-what’s-coming-to-you attitude of the people in this town plays into their identity, plays into the plot of the story, too: It’s easy to believe that people, roots down, will just bite the bullet, make the best of a situation, rather than face the horrors of moving, starting new lives elsewhere. In that way, this story serves as a pretty obvious metaphor for stagnation, why anybody who lives in any shitty place doesn’t just move to a nicer place.

The story is focused on this eleven-year-old kid who goes to middle school and plays on the soccer team coached by his dad. Cass seems to be poking at something else here, as the soccer team is where all the mutated kids end up, along with the geeks and the home-schooled kids, as the cool, healthy, non-mutant kids play the more popular sports, football and basketball and cheerleading and the like. Not having gone to a school that had soccer—plus, I hate soccer—I can imagine this is how many school’s soccer teams are assembled (though in reality, soccer players are excellent athletes and have simply endeared themselves to the metric system of team sports), a bunch of outcasts and mismatches and leftovers. Literally, though, these kids are monsters, and instead of A.V. club or flag corps, Cass sticks them on the soccer team.

Anyway, the problem with the all-mutant soccer team is that nobody wants to play them. Of course, nobody will travel to play them at home—hey, another metaphor, the way the richer suburban schools never wanted to come to the poorer suburbs when I was in school, too afraid they’d all get shot as they filed off the bus—so they get some road games, but by the time this story gets going, nobody really wants them on their fields, either. One school even says they’d like to see more tests done, you know, just to be safe, that mutation isn’t contagious. Because the mutant kids are the protagonists, Cass’s own Bad News Bears, we feel sorry for them, see them as those ragtag underdogs that just want their shot.

That’s as far as I’ll go with the plot, as really, for a regular-sized story (or non-short), “The All-Mutant Soccer Team” isn’t that long. Cass also keeps the action moving quickly. Amidst all the games and canceled games and mutantism, however there’s still this kid, this narrator, and there we get another call-out, this one to sports story conventions, his dad a real jack ass, an overbearing coach who runs the poor little mutants to death because he thinks it builds character (and leg muscles). The climax of this story involves the dad, but really, the story sits with this kid, this mutant—one who knows cancer is just one checkup away—who has to deal with his condition, his dad, and being an eleven-year-old kid in America, flippers or hands or whathaveyou.

ActivAmerica is filled with stories like this, character sketches that take place in fantastic worlds, be they filled with mutants, ghosts, orphans, or divorcées, anyone on the fringe who has to overcome an extra pile of shit because they feel just a bit different. It’s a terribly fun collection to read, the scope of Cass’s imagination and heart both seemingly limitless.

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“Beast” by Samantha Hunt

Happy Wednesday, Story366 enthusiasts! Right now I’m in that blissful time post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s where the world kind of stands still. I’m off from teaching. Karen is off from teaching. My kids are out of school. There’s no shopping or baking or wrapping. Me and the boys sleep until ten every morning and stay up way too late at night. We nap. We eat leftover Christmas food for our meals and venture to finish off the Christmas cookies. We have nowhere to be. Most everyone we know is either out of town or offline. And it’s freaking cold outside, in the low twenties at the high, prompting us inside, away from adventure, away from ambition. We have spent a few days doing anything we want, whenever we want, for as long as we want. I’ve read books, watched Netflix, Nerf-gun battled my sons, and not cared what time it is. Is there a better time to be an academic or an artist?

At some point, I have to turn this freedom, this unencumbered time, into words on the page, finish at least one of the three stories I’ve started, as, you know, this feeling of euphoria, of free time, is what we writers crave. During any given semester, I fight and claw for the energy to write, also when I fight and claw for the time—energy and time have to align, and that’s tough to do, as often as a solar eclipse or some comet passing by our atmosphere. Still, I manage; stories get written. Over breaks like this, with zero excuses, we’re supposed to produce like German factories, right? Literally, I think that’s why I get a month off between semesters, so I can conjure the written word, build my vita, bring esteem to my department. Karen always tells me as I head off to my office, “Be brilliant.” She knows this will include me eating, me napping, me reading pointless articles on the internet, me doing whatever I do in my office when kids aren’t vying for our attention. I might also fit in a Story366 post. Then, and only then, will I take a stab at brilliance.

With that in mind, let’s get to Samantha Hunt and her collection The Dark Dark, out from FSG, one of the five collections Karen bought me for Christmas from this very awesome list from Paper Darts, a best-of for collections for 2017. I’ve read stories here and there from Hunt in the past, but haven’t read any of her three novels (I don’t read many novels, so that’s not surprising). I was happy to get a collection of hers—her first—in my hands, experience more of her work, and a bunch of it at once.

To prepare for this post, I read three stories from The Dark Dark, “All Hands,” “Beast,” and “The Yellow,” and could have written about any of them, as all three stories are striking, wonderful pieces of fiction. They’re also an eclectic bunch, with completely different settings, characters, and points of view, unified by the fact they’re written by the same author, but also by how surprised I was by the twists Hunt takes us on , how I couldn’t have predicted how any would proceed. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you, after a couple of pages into each, what any of them were about or would become about. Plot unfolds in these stories, then changes its mind, then rushes toward unlikely endings, or no endings at all. These were some of the more interesting and unique stories I’ve read in a while. I love all three.

Since I have to pick one story, I’m picking “Beast,” as it’s most likely the story I’ll share with my students this coming semester, the story I think they should read, the story I want everyone to read just so I can talk with them about it when they’re done. “Beast” is about an unnamed woman who lives with her husband, reads the paper in bed, and gets a lot of ticks. At least this is what you would think the story is about after a few pages, as this is what happens: Our protagonist lies in bed, reads the paper, thinks about the stories she comes across, and talks to her husband as he pulls ticks out of her skin with tweezers. This isn’t a car chase or a duel or a passionate embrace in the surf, but at the same time, Hunt keeps it interesting with quick back-and-forth—the dialogue is quick, punchy, and fun—and interesting stream-of-conscious narration. One news story is about a man in Minnesota who works like seventy-eight hours a day, plus gives plasma, to put his twin sister through college, which makes our hero think about her own brother, who hung himself years earlier. So, not a lot happens, but we get to know this couple, even envy them, especially when our hero describes her husband, their good run, as luck, she and her friends randomly picking boys in high school, hers the only one a perfect match.

Where’s this story going? On top of being a relationship story, our protagonist reveals, eventually, that every night, when her husband falls asleep, she turns into a deer. Literally, she means it: hooves, pointy face, fur, the whole deal. Since she doesn’t have thumbs, she can’t leave their little house (they live on someone else’s property and pay their way by acting as caretakers, so there’s a little Shining here) because she can’t turn the knob on the door. So she waits, as a deer, until morning, when she turns back into her human self and then she and her husband resume their normal lives. (And now I’m thinking back to a detail in the first sentence, one that pegs her as nude every night in bed, which now makes a lot of sense—pajamas would pose a serious deer problem.)

Our hero swears that any day now, she’s going to tell her hard-working and loyal husband that she’s turning into a deer every night because … sooner or later he’ll wake up and find out for himself; the fact he keeps a loaded rifle in the house adds a few degrees to the tension. In the meantime, Hunt takes us through a few nights where she talks about her tick bites (which also make more sense), discusses musicals, thinks about a deer-fucker named Pete she remembers from childhood, and oh, right, deals with the affair she’s had (or maybe is still having) with a guy named Erich, who calls her and announce the degree to which they’ll fornicate. Note: The deer transformations seem to have begun right after the affair began, but nothing more is made of that, so we have to wonder about the sorta-obvious connection. Is Erich a weredeer? That’s one question, surely, but another: Is she really turning into a deer, or is it some weird mid-life crisis, some manifestation of guilt?

I won’t answer these questions here, as like I said, there’s more twists and turns on the way, nothing I could have predicted or would spoil for you. Not that I was predicting anything, anyway, as I was too lost in the prose, in the story, be it the twin brother anecdote or the Pete anecdote, or this couple’s familiar back and forth, two people in love despite what’s happened, what still will happen. I liked getting to know these people and could have read about them for pages and pages, the deer detail just an added bonus.  “Beast” is such solid fiction, in every sense, I don’t think me describing could do it justice. This is definitely one I recommend you check out for yourself—I can’t wait to see my students’ faces the day we talk about it.

The other stories I read in The Dark Dark had similar effects, one about a Coast Guard officer and another about a guy who moves back in with his parents, then runs over a neighborhood dog; if neither of these descriptions sound all that promising, trust, me, that’s just the basic set-up for what turn into really awesome, surprising, and exciting pieces of fiction. I suspect all the stories in The Dark Dark are like this, which makes me want to dive back in and find out. I haven’t read as many books this year as I did last year—few people have—but without question, Samantha Hunt’s will end up near the top of my list for 2017.

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