July 5: “The Heaven of Animals” by David James Poissant

Hello, Story366! Can I tell you that I’m excited? I’m excited. Tomorrow morning, I’m leaving for a four-day, three-night writing retreat. I’ve been working pretty hard this last week to make sure that everything is in line, all other projects are finished, the pets are fed, and the deck is stripped, sanded, and varnished (okay, I still haven’t touched the deck). My main mission these next few days is to work on my fiction, to write, to get closer to that fourth book. Sure, I’ll still have to teach my two summer online courses, and don’t fret, Story366 will rage on. But more than anything, I have a few stories to finish up, a couple to get out in the mail, and a novel to pick up. Hopefully, when I return, there will be fantastic progress. I’ll keep you updated from the road.

Ironically, one thing that I do to get ready for these trips is give Karen extra time in the days leading up to my departure, making sure she’s not in the hole, in the red, as I drive off. That means taking charge of the world’s two youngest Czyzniejewskis for large stretches. Since Karen’s office is in the living room, we hit the town for adventures. That includes stops at the train store (aka, Barnes & Noble), several playgrounds, the zoo, the library, the Laundromat (still don’t have our drier fixed), the mall, and any other place we can spend a couple of hours. What all this adds up to is a whole lot of bonding, me getting used to spending all day with the boys, hearing them laugh, cry, and ignore me. What sucks, then, is leaving for four days and not getting to hang around with them. In other words, I’m going to miss those little scamps. I’ll need to process that as more motivation to go on this retreat and really produce: Why go through the trouble, spend that time away from family, and not have anything to show for it?

Today’s post comes from The Heaven of Animals by Jamie Poissant, aka David James Poissant, released (the book, not Jamie) by Simon & Schuster. Really, until I looked closely at the cover just now, I had no idea that Jamie’s name was David James, as I’ve know him only as Jamie. He and I aren’t lifelong friends of anything—otherwise I probably would have known his freakin’ name—but I’ve known him in this writing world long enough to find it weird I read through his book today, have seen his work published, Liked his posts on FB, and never made that observation.

It would have been cool if Poissant’s stories had something to do with issues of identity, even nomenclature, but no such luck, not in the few I read from The Heaven of Animals, anyway. There’s a bunch of stories that have animals in the titles, like “Lizard Man” and “What the Wolf Wants,” so I read those, wondering if there was a bestiary component to the book. Perhaps. And I really liked both of these stories, particularly “What the Wolf Wants,” which is really different from other things I’ve read by Poissant in an absurd way. It’s about a guy who gets a visit from a wolf (with a prominent swinging ball sack), a wolf who wants some moccasins. That’s a short piece, only four pages, but instead, I’m again deferring to the title story, the forty-page “The Heaven of Animals,” mainly because, damn it, I read a forty-page story at a Laundromat today and I’m going to write an essay about it.

“The Heaven of Animals” is about Dan, this fifty-something guy in Florida who gets a call from Jack, his only son, to come out to California. Jack’s dying of AIDS-related pneumonia, so his call is as in, get here as soon as possible because it’s going to be really soon. Jack and Dan haven’t spoken in ten years, not since Dan dropped him off in La Jolla, a three-day trip that went well, probably the best three days Dan has ever lived. Dan and Jack aren’t close, however, Dan a recovering alcoholic, once a legendarily shitty father and husband. A long time ago, when Jack first came out, drunk Dan reacted by throwing Jack through the picture window, out into the flower bed. He got on the wagon after that, but still lost his wife (who soon died of cancer), and barely got to reconnect with Jack before taking him west; Jack only really spoke to Dan when he needed something: money from college, a ride to La Jolla, someone to talk to as he dies. It’s a wonderfully complicated set-up for a story, what we get in the first couple of pages, thirty-eight still to go. What great writing, putting such a tale in motion.

So Dan gets in his beater car and high-tails it to California, quitting his job and emptying his bank account to make it happen. The story then is Dan’s trip, a road story. Dan meets all of kinds of people and runs into all kinds of predicaments, like in all good road stories, and this is a good road story. To add to Dan’s anxiety and pain, he decides to trace the route he and Jack took ten years earlier. He eats at the same diners, gases up at the same stations, and even tries to see the same roadside attractions, including a giant Gila monster in a New Mexico motel. The stops stir up a lot of ghosts for Dan, adding to the fact that Dan is almost broke, his car is on its last legs, and just maybe, he’s done some things to put the cops on his trail.

Of course, the big clock on this story is whether or not Dan can physically will himself to California before Jack dies. Dan hasn’t seen him in ten years, didn’t know he was dying of AIDS, but has this last chance to see him, comfort him in his last moments, say he’s sorry one more time. Tell Jack he loves him. I won’t reveal whether or not he makes it, as that’s the story. Poissant makes it worth it, though, the forty pages, Dan’s journey. Again, what a great story.

I really admire Jamie Poissant, as The Heaven of Animals is a pretty fantastic book. This the really heartfelt title story, which was published in The Atlantic, and then a story like “What the Wolf Wants,” about this talking, big-nutted wolf with a shoe fetish that was in West Branch. Poissant is a talent, and an eclectic one, and I’m glad I know him and his work.

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3 thoughts on “July 5: “The Heaven of Animals” by David James Poissant

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