August 29: “Delicate Edible Birds” by Lauren Groff

Back to Monday again, Story366! Today proved that the new semester is indeed real and last week wasn’t some weird summer camp my mom made me go to because I was playing too much Atari and she wanted to watch Price Is Right in peace. I’ve been rolling through lecture after lecture like my mom, telling me I’ve been playing too much Atari and she just wants the TV to watch Price Is Right. Soon, students will start turning in assignments and the real reminder that I’m a professor will crash into the mountain: I’ll have to grade something. That’s at least thirty-eight and a half hours away, though, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’m still going to read books and watch Netflix tonight and neither you nor any obligation is going to tell me differently.

I already got some prime reading time in today and used that to explore Lauren Groff’s collection Delicate Edible Birds, out from Voice. It’s Groff’s second book, after her debut, the novel The Monsters of Templeton, preceding the novels Arcadia (which I teach in my contemporary lit class) and Fates and Furies, which was a finalist for the National Book Award last year. Groff is someone I’ve been dubbing “one of the preeminent American fiction writers lately,” and I’ve even gone so far as to recommend her to lit profs in my department—yeah, lit profs. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her—I’ve read those first two novels—so it was time to get into her collection of stories (and yeah, I can count on one Nightcrawler hand how many times I’ve read two novels by a writer before I’ve read their story collection).

I went right to the title story of Delicate Edible Birds, the last story in the collection, and I knew I was going to write about it for Story366. “Delicate Edible Birds” is about a team of journalists trying to escape Nazi-occupied France right after Paris’ initial occupation. The quintet—Bern, Viktor, Lucci, Parnell, and Frank—has a jeep, is headed south, but they soon find out that they don’t have the supplies to get to a Nazi-free city. They hear bullets and odd machinery behind them and find bodies and ruins along the way. Right away, it’s an intriguing story, as it’s an exotic setting, in a tense time, and there’s a real plot/goal established: Get away from the Nazis or die; the group includes French, British, Russian, and American members and all of them have heard rumor of the camps, can guess what will happen to them if they’re captured.

That’s just the set-up, though—there’s a lot more to what makes this story great. Structurally, Groff roams the POV, from character to character, a few pages from each, moving the story forward as she goes (like Aubrey Hirsch’s circus story I reviewed last week). Groff spins back around to cover everyone twice; the first round, we more or less meet everyone, and this is where Groff gets to really characterize each person, in their own voice, while also revealing backstory (and frontstory) details that are key to the plot unfolding. Bern is the only woman, is Jewish, and has been lover to at least two of the men in the group, including, currently, Parnell. Frank is fat and a bit pathetic (he’s Bern’s former lover). Viktor is the Russian and wants Bern, wants his “turn.”. Lucci is a photographer, is haunted by thoughts of his family, and is the one who knew Bern, albeit briefly, before the war. As the five characters make their way, they’re initially all doing the same thing: running for their lives. As the story unfolds and the characters grow hungry and desperate, little quirks start to show, making an already-tense situation even worse.

As the heroes run out of supplies, especially fuel, they come across a little farmhouse populated by a man, his two sons, and his mother. It’s a place that doesn’t look particularly inviting—the men all have rifles—but it’s France and these farmers are French and our protagonists are starving so they can’t be too choosy. They can buy gas and food from the farmer, they figure, so they approach. The farmer, Nicolas, is fast to give them something to eat, quite a meal, but after, the dealing begins: Nicolas wants payment. Oh, and he’s welcoming the Nazis with open arms. He won’t take French currency—worthless, he declares it—and does not want a king’s ransom in valuables, including a gold watch and some diamond cufflinks, all for a bindle of snacks and five bucks worth of gas. What does Nicolas, traitor and Nazi and insincere host, want? One night with Bern.

Because this group that we’ve been following is decent, they say no (Bern says Hell no), so the five are locked in the barn, without any more food, the Nazis days behind. Thus begins the story’s ultimate dilemma, somewhat of an existential one: Do they starve and wait for the Nazis to come and capture (or perhaps outright shoot) them, or does Bern make this icky sacrifice (trusting, of course, that Nicolas honors his deal)? That becomes the second round of POV sections, each character examining him or herself, weighing their friends, their honor, and their lives against each other. I’ll stop there, leaving something for you to discover. But yeah, wow, what a situation, what a story.

I admire “Delicate Edible Birds” for a lot of reasons, including the exotic setting, the variety of characters, the high stakes, the POV-shifting structure, and the horrible choice that Groff makes her characters face. Everything about this story is, in all intents and purposes, perfect. At the start of the day, I was calling Lauren Groff the American writer right now. After reading more of her stories, that statement’s dripping with cement.