I’m always excited when Curtis Smith comes out with a new collection of short fiction. I’ve been a fan of his for years now, and his ability to tell a story with wit, wry humor, a good turn of phrase, and, most of all, human kindness, makes Curt’s stories a joy to read. His latest collection, Beasts and Men, is no exception.
Most of the stories in Beasts and Men take place in rural America, and Smith’s characters tend to be outsiders struggling, frequently with heartbreaking yet hopeful results, to find a place in the world. There’s the pair of adulterers who strike a dog with their car only to discover the true nature of their relationship. There’s the high-school outcast trying to carve some modicum of self-possession through prolonged silences and incessant sketching. There’s the young man standing in the backyard of the woman who used to love him, drunk and howling for the love he’s lost. There are winners and losers of all stripes in this collection — all struggling to make sense of the world, all searching for meaning, all intensely and utterly human. Indeed, Smith’s gift for depicting the private moment of spiritual and emotional crisis is on full display throughout Beasts and Men. That he does it so lovingly and with such great care for his characters marks him not only as an author of great skill, but also as one of great compassion.
Stone Animals is at once haunting, bizarre, whimsical, and oddly realistic in its depiction of adult relationships. What starts off as a fairly typical story about a family moving out of the city and into a quiet country home quickly transmogrifies into a tale of paranoia, suspicion, and betrayal as Henry and his pregnant wife Catherine (along with their children Tilly and Carleton) realize that their home is under constant surveillance by a large warren of rabbits. Continually called back to the city by his manipulative boss, Henry can only watch helplessly as his wife dons a gas mask every day and goes about painting the rooms of their house one curiously-named color after another. Meanwhile, the children are becoming increasingly convinced that while their new home may not be haunted, everything within it is: a toothbrush, the television, an alarm clock, the cat. Evoking the magic realism of works like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Eva Is Inside Her Cat,” the story’s tension mounts as its hallucinatory qualities multiply, and it isn’t long before the fabric of reality (for both the characters and, potentially, readers) starts to unravel. Beautifully illustrated by, among others, Lisa Brown, Anthony Doerr, Ursula K. Le Guinn, and Audrey Niffenegger, Stone Animals is a quirky, haunting gem of a book.
In Sweet Tomb, Trinie Dalton offers up a trippy coming of age narrative that’s equal parts modern fairy tale and bizarro love story. At the center of the narrative is Candy, a young witch whose ambivalence about her identity leads to a complicated relationship with a vampire named Chad. As unfulfilling as her relationship with Chad is — compounded by his propensity for sinking his fangs into Candy’s neck — she just can’t shake the guy. Making matters worse are her own preternatural appetite for sweets, the lingering childhood guilt of luring unsuspecting friends into her mother’s gingerbread home so that she might feed on them, and the sudden appearance of a noseless Pinocchio in her garden. Sensing there’s little for her in her hometown, Candy hitches a ride with a hippie named ESP and finds herself in the big city, where she opens a bank account with Death and attends a party hosted by Evil.
Did I mention that the book is trippy? It’s also very funny in places. Indeed, some of the passages involving Chad, the vampire, read like a biting parody of Twilight (apologies for the pun!). Case in point: “You taste like octopus,” Chad said, chewing between gulps… To him, sucking blood was like the art of eating a chicken wing. It required delicacy and finesse to avoid waste. Yet as the narrative progresses, it also begins to feel, bizarrely, like an episode of Girls, with Candy taking over the lead role of the young woman trying to make her way in the world. Overall, it’s a wild ride that will appeal to anyone with a dark sense of humor and a twisted imagination.
On the last page of This Isn’t Who We Are, a drug dealer tells a woman who’s just induced an abortion with a curtain rod that she needs help. The same can be said of all the characters who populate this collection of very short fiction (and, arguably, for its author, Barry Graham, but I don’t know him well enough to say for sure). Throughout, tragedy unfolds in every dark corner of the American landscape: members of a professional video game team competing in the women-over-thirty division dream of becoming Mortal Kombat champions, a little girl puts a sweater on a dead cat, a fatherless sadist tortures a kidnap victim in his basement. The list goes on and on, each image incrementally more disturbing than the last. With any luck, the book’s tile is correct, and this really isn’t who we are.