I need a show of hands: Who reads Story366 in church? The answer might be nobody, but I do wonder, just now, if that’s ever happened. Since I haven’t attended church much since smart phones came into prominence, I wonder if people look at their phones during the service. As an antsy young Catholic—I swear, I had some major restless leg syndrome going on—I always used my imagination to escape the chanting and the ceremony and the repetition, turning any given mass into a super hero sci-fi battle, featuring me and my friends, often facing off against the statues of the saints come alive. Now, since there are smart phones and we don’t need imagination any more, I wonder how many people check their phone during a service, sneaking peeks as scores, at texts, and FB alerts; do some church goers just sit in their pews and surf the web, openly and without fear of scornful eyes, or worse, divine remuneration? Hmm.
What I’m getting at is, if someone checks their phone during a religious service, and people read Story366, it’s possible that someone has combined the two and has clicked on the link to this blog during church. Maybe just to make the notification disappear, maybe just to see which author I’m writing about, or maybe to read the entire post, comment, and then share the link, so others can do the same (in church, at home, at work, at the local disco, wherever). For me, doing this blog every day—eighty days in a row now—is kind of like a religion, as I’ve needed that level of dedication to not skip a day. To think that someone’s ignoring an actual god to focus on this blog instead is probably going too far with the metaphor, but just curious. It’s nice to have fans, but please, don’t damn yourself in my name.
Today, I read from Nancy Zafris’ latest collection, The Home Jar, out in 2013 from Switchgrass Books (which I now know is headquartered at Northern Illinois University, where three of my siblings went to college … how did I not know that before?). Nancy is a friend from Columbus, Ohio, someone Karen introduced me to years ago, someone who has been a major contributor to contemporary letters for a long time. In addition to her writing—Zafris is also the author of two novels and another story collection—she was Fiction Editor at Kenyon Review and for a long time, has been the editor of the Flannery O’Connor Award, ushering in new stories and books of stories for years now. She’s as solid a literary citizen as can be, so it’s great to be reading her work, writing about it.
I like the stories in The Home Jar a whole lot, as they’re challenging, creative, strong-voiced and eclectic. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started the book, but by the time I read a few of the pieces, I knew I shouldn’t expect anything, as there was no pattern, not even a theme. I could have written about any of the five stories I read, as each presents its own set of discussion points, challenges, and skills. I’ve settled on the first story in the book, the first I read, “Stealing the Llama Farm,” because hey, great title, and great delivery on that promise, too.
“Stealing the Llama Farm” is about an unnamed narrator (whose gender isn’t revealed either, by the way) in love with local llama farmer Amy Boyd. Amy’s father ran the llama farm, and nobody, including Amy, wanted to carry on the tradition upon his death. When her mother and brothers both high-tail it out of town, Amy returns from college at Miami (of Ohio) to take his place. She’s not particularly great at it, but her loyalty to her father’s memory is what keeps her there, the exact same memory that drove everyone else away. Is it this loyalty that the narrator is in love with? Maybe, as we don’t really find out what the attraction is, other than it’s real. And intense.
The only problem with the narrator’s love of Amy Boyd is that he/she hates llamas. They bite, they stink, they eat too much, they crap too much, but most of all, they bite, and the narrator only associates with llamas to be near Amy. Not that Amy notices—she’s so obsessed with the creatures, she writes short stories that feature llamas; by “feature,” it’s meant that the llamas are the protagonists, anthropomorphized into the human roles of traditional stories. The most-fun bit of the story is when the narrator points out that some people like Venetian blinds, but don’t write stories about Venetian blinds falling in love, having baby blinds, etc., trying to reason with Amy, pull her out of her llamacentric world. A funny analogy, but Amy doesn’t notice. She’s head-down, task-oriented, and has turned down—by not showing up—hundreds of offers for dinner from the narrator, all to Chi-Chi’s, the only restaurant in town. Sound like stalking? Well, don’t go anywhere ….
“Stealing the Llama Farm” isn’t a long story, clocking in at a brisk ten pages. Me giving away anything else about the story would be giving away too much, but the ending makes me think of the first time I read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” alone, in the middle of the night, shaken by what eventually unfolded. I’m not as shocked by Zafris’ climax, but I’ll leave it at that: I remembered O’Connor.
I’ve been a fan of Nancy Zafris’ work for a while and love this book, The Home Jar, too. The stories are unpredictable, technically daring, and make the book feel like an athology of stories by different authors with how unique they are from each other. Really serious moments are flanked by out-of-nowhere humor, like the Venetian blinds bit, or in Zafris’ explanation of how Chi-Chi’s put the only other restaurant in town—a coal mine-themed buffet—out of business; Zafris goes both ways, often skirting humor with flashes of tragedy. All in all, Zafris is a great contributor to American letters, someone that you, me, and everyone should read more of. Maybe even in church.