“Large Animals” by Jess Arndt

Hey there, Story366! It’s been a week since I posted, after three straight days of posting. Firstly, I’ve been out of town—a few days in Chicago for family-visiting and beer vending. Sad to admit this, but for a tiny bit there, I wondered if I was going to make it back. It was hot in Chicago this past weekend, in the hundreds Friday and Saturday, heat that’s intensified whilst carrying heavy things up and down stairs for three straight hours. For a good part of Friday, I didn’t quite feel right, not in the body and not in the brain, and at the end there, I started to think maybe I was putting together the symptoms for a stroke, or at the very least, heat stroke (never having had either, this is based on nothing). Before anything serious went down, both my legs intervened on my behalf, cramping up at once, making me hobble up the stairs and check out in the top of the seventh inning. I then took a very long walk to my brother’s car, where I pledged my eternal love to his AC (I offered quite the dowery). Before I knew it, I was okay again. Better prep for Saturday and Sunday (more sleep, more water, something to eat) made me okay both days, but yeah, for a second there, I wondered if I should be making peace with my gods (or maybe just take a break).

The fam and I spent the morning of the Fourth at the Marshfield city parade and the evening at the Webster County Fair, both of which we did so we could spend the day with the Karen, who was shooting both events for her gig at the paper. We’ve not exactly embraced the parade scene here in Springfield, or in general since we’ve had kids, so it felt dutiful to plop the boys down on a curb in this tiny town so they could complain about the heat and gather candy from politicians and Shriners. All of this came to pass. We then had a fun time at the Fair at night, the boys riding armbands’ full of rides until we lured them to the car with fireworks—after a long day, we had no desire to stick around the grounds for the city display, fighting for a spot on the lawn and then sitting through traffic out of town. So, for the first time—ever—I purchased fireworks at one of the many, many tents stationed roadside here in Missouri. Unlike most kids, I’ve never been a huge fireworks guy, something instilled in me by my overly paranoid and protective mother (who tells the story of at least three people she once knew who lost parts of their hands in such a fashion). Hey, to get out of a late-night bottleneck in this little town? I was willing to try something new. Fireworks, I found, aren’t all that expensive (though we showed up around nine p.m. on the Fourth—might have been deal time) and we set off some fountains and smoke bombs and other explosives on our back patio. All our fingers are intact and the Fourth has been properly honored.

Also, before I left for Chicago, I spent a night sending out queries for review copies of collections—one of the perks of doing this blog so regularly—so I returned to a whole bunch of packages in my mailbox. The initial haul:

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Not bad. I look forward to diving into all of these, and soon. Yay!

I’ve had the focus of today’s post, Large Animals by Jess Arndt (Catapult, 2017), with me for the past week, hopeful I’d get to it, squeeze out a post, but like so many trips out of town, that didn’t happen. Now that I’m back to my somewhat normal summer routine today, I was able to sit down and read some of Arndt’s stories. Large Animals was the last of the books I picked up at AWP this year, so I’ve not only had this one with me for a week, but it’s been looking at me for the better part of four months.

The wait, a few stories in, was certainly worth it, too, as Arndt presents one of the more original voices I’ve come across in a while. In describing her stories, a lot of adjectives come to mind, but the one I’ll start with is “understated,” as Arndt’s type of narration isn’t the kind that’s overly revelatory. Arndt is a writer who, more than mostly every writer I’ve read, pays heed to the show-don’t-tell advice that we writers get (and give). Her stories happen and end without much in the way of summary or clarification as to what any of it means. Not that most good (or published) writers do, but there’s a feeling in Arndt’s work that she’s particularly letting her scenes, her images, and the choices by her protagonists speak for themselves.

Part of all this has to do with Arndt’s style—I think she withholds any type of explanation as part of who she is as a writer—but I also think it’s because her characters couldn’t explain their choices if they had to. The characters in Arndt’s stories seem a bit lost, and on top of that, there’s no indication that they’re particularly in search of direction. As Arndt’s stories happen, her characters simply do.

For example, “Moon Colonies,” the book’s opener, is about a trio of seemingly homeless youths venturing upon a night on the Atlantic City strip. The protagonist of that story happens upon a sizable payout, one that’s going to change the lives of the whole gang. Sooner rather than later, that payout finds its way into a slot machine and everyone’s back to square one. We don’t know exactly what any of the characters’ stories are, why they’re in their situation or why they make their choices, but the story’s not about that. It’s more about the interactions between the characters, the dynamic of the situation, and the unpredictable twists that lead them, more or less, back where they’ve started.

The title story, “Large Animals,” which ends the book, features perhaps the most lost of all the characters, an unnamed person who’s living in the Mojave Desert, trying to get work done (what that work is, we don’t know, but it involves a computer), but is constantly distracted by the surroundings, or lack thereof. The story opens with an admission of troubling dreams, how our hero is dreaming of large animals—bears, wolves, rhinos—converging during sleep. Most dominant of all these creatures is a giant walrus, which seems to both disgust and tantalize our protagonist, a vision of horror, sloth, and inexplicable sexual attraction all at the same time.

From there, we see the protagonist work through a variety of daily routines, which includes a lot of drinking, a lot of blacking out, eating at the local Mexican restaurant, and spending time at the Eagles Lodge, which serves as the community’s library. There’s a neighbor named Gary, who always drops by with an invite to Taco Wednesday, and Tamara, the tall, chain-smoking waitress from the Mexican restaurant. Our protagonist spends a lot of time just passing time, and because of the six packs and the walrus dreams, isn’t quite sure, at times, what’s real and what’s not—a recurring bit has our hero wake to a kitchen sink full of dishes even though there’s been no cooking or eating to explain them.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve avoided using a gender-specific pronoun in describing the protagonist in “Large Animals,” and that’s because the story more than hints at some gender identity issues. At one point, our hero makes reference to his (in this case?) balls, and there’s some lingering divorce papers on the table from someone named CeCe (I know—women can marry women, but I was looking for clues …). Then Tamara comes by for some beers and when it seems like things might get intimate, Tamara asks our hero what it’s like to be a lesbian, making reference to a non-existent Adam’s apple. And this isn’t the first time in the book when gender identity and its questioning has reared itself, as each of the other stories I read—”Moon Colonies” and “Shadow of an Ape”—make at least passing references to the same. In a book that’s apparently filled with characters uncertain of where they’re going or who they are, gender identity (and sexual identify) fits in well thematically; maybe, though, it’s the other way around: the book is all about gender identity and the stories are just metaphors for that theme. Not sure, but if ambiguity’s a theme, then it’s certainly working on all cylinders.

I won’t tell you anything else about “Large Animals,” as I’ll let what I’ve said serve by itself. What I should make clear, however, is that I like what Arndt does with this story, with all her stories I’ve read, how she’s able to connect her readers to her characters’ aimlessness, to their anonymity. Part of me wants to liken Arndt’s style to a variation of stream of consciousness, where the reader has to follow a narrator’s scattered thoughts; I won’t go so far as that, as Arndt’s stories certainly aren’t that interior. Arndt’s style gave me that same feeling, however, like reading Joyce or Faulkner, that I was along for a ride, part of the whole process, part of the world unfolding. I was on board with this approach from the start, enjoying what Arndt’s characters experienced as they did, catching on—mostly from context—as each new adventure unfolded. I like Jess Arndt’s book for challenging me as a reader and a critic, for showing me, yet again, what stories can be.

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