“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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