March 2: “How Animals Mate” by Daniel Mueller

Another late entry? Before yesterday, I’d posted after noon only a couple of other times. Yesterday, because it was one of those days, I didn’t get a chance to write the entry and post until 5:30. Again, it’s been a day, so here I am, in the evening. As long as it’s up before midnight, right? I’m probably the only one keeping track of this, but I’d like to maximize my readers, not lose anyone who might be keeping track (like that unidentified reader in Cyprus who checks in a few times a week). Spring break starts on Friday, so I should be able to get ahead again, but for those of you who are pacing back and forth, who have perhaps started drinking alcohol (earlier than normal), or have inquired with the local police, asking they go to my house and check on me, I apologize: I’m here and I’m storying up a storm.

Today I’m writing about the title story in Daniel Mueller’s 1999 collection How Animals Mate. I’ve seen Mueller’s work around a lot since I’ve been in this writing world and got to meet him once, both of us reading or teaching or something at a writer’s conference in Ann Arbor some years back. If you know anything about Daniel Mueller that’s not his writing, it’s probably a physical trait, not about him, but how he wears his hats. I’ve never seen Mueller, or a picture of him, without a ball cap on—with the bill bent upward. Lots of different ball caps, but always, every time, bill up. At that Michigan conference, on his book jacket, and in every photo on FB. It’s his thing. I want to make some sort of grotesque metaphorical assumption about it, but I won’t. Still, since I read “How Animals Mate” picturing Mueller (as I often do the writers I’m reading) with his hate that way, you have to read my entry picturing the same thing. It’s only right. It’s only Mueller.

“How Animals Mate” is a sprawling, unpredictable, and lovely story. Our protagonist is Rich Reville, an early-teen kid living way up in Minnesota, seven minutes by bike from Canada, with his parents, a OB-GYN and a homemaker. For the first third of the story, Rich bums around with three other boys—Pedro, Guttenoff, and OB—kids he describes as sickos. Why? OB’s family’s rich, but never around, and the four spend afternoons, evenings, and overnighters in OB’s geodesic dome house with a bunch of concept art, an impressive entertainment center, and the largest collection of porn in the upper Midwest. They watch porn, drink sodas, and for a break, venture out into the neighborhood and spy into people’s windows, wanting to “verify” what they’ve seen in the pornos. The best they witness is a divorcee vacuuming in a bathing suit. Back to the porn dome they go. which suits three of the boys just fine.

Rich gets sick of it, eventually, distancing himself from the other boys. He has his sights set on the troubled neighbor girl, Tammy, who was in his physiology class one time and never showed again, skipping each day after. Rich and his cronies peep on her once, watching her roll and smoke on joint on her basement bed, but that’s it. Still, Rich is obsessed. One day, long after Rich has dispelled his friends, Tammy’s dad comes over, asks if Tammy can watch Rich’s dad perform a surgery as an extra credit assignment, trying to score a pass in physiology despite zero attendance after the first day; this is already Tammy’s fifth year in high school. Rich is more than eager to accompany Tammy to a surgery, still pining for her, and Dr. Reville agrees.

By this point in the story, little details have begun to add up. Rich’s parents have minor disagreements—including the surgery observation—and eventually, we find, those were a sign of greater problems. Tammy’s parents are more obviously endangered—firearms are involved—and each of Rich’s former friends has his own issue. “How Animals Mate” is a thirty-page story, and Mueller takes advantage of every page, sticking in little details that seem like throwaways when they happen, but cumulatively, paint a complicated landscape that Rich inhabits.

When Tammy and Rich arrive at the hospital for the surgery, the story gains momentum, and quickly, Tammy revealing the real reason she agreed to come to the hospital and watch Rich’s dad pull a benign tumor of an old lady’s ovary. It’s an unexpected revelation, right before the kids scrub (Dr. Reville has them at his side, claiming them to be med students), making the surgery an odd, wonderful, and disturbing climax for this tale. It’s a fantastic scene, worth reading the story for, symbolizing the story’s, and Mueller’s, twisted outlook on young love.

How Animals Mate is a collection full of stories like this, disarming, sympathetic pieces that explore very real, very wounded people, before, during, and after their wounding. I’ve read other stories from the book and like all of them, but none as much as Daniel Mueller’s title story. A great way to spend my late afternoon.

Daniel Mueller