"Everyone who works with animals has a mark somewhere," observes an
elephant keeper in the title story of Hannah Tinti's debut short
story collection, ANIMAL CRACKERS. For some these marks are
physical --- Sandy, who is in charge of the monkey house, has a
scar across her face where a gorilla bit her; another elephant
keeper has lost an arm. But for others, the marks are deeply
psychological: Mike, a failed poet, trains sea lions and tries to
pawn his chapbooks to zoogoers, and Ann sells tickets while
obsessively guarding her bald cat.
"Animal Crackers" is a fitting introduction to the ten stories that
follow, all of which explore characters' relationships with various
animals and how they locate meaning in giraffes at the zoo, a
neighbor's cat, a stuffed bear in a museum, or an ex-boyfriend's
snake. Tinti, who co-founded and edits the literary magazine One
Story, mines these human/animal interactions for surprisingly
effective metaphors that eloquently reveal her characters' views of
themselves and the world around them.
In "Reasonable Terms," three giraffes go on strike for better
habitat conditions. Lying prone on the ground, their eyes rolled
back and their tongues lolling out, they play dead and refuse to
entertain their audiences. The predicament causes the zookeeper to
reflect on his own marriage: "The zookeeper looked at the animals
prostrate in the dirt and was reminded of pre-Darwinian concepts of
evolution --- that the length of giraffes' necks was determined by
stretching to obtain what they desire. He wondered if this kind of
despair was inside Matilda." Tinti does not focuses solely on the
human element: playing equal roles are giraffes Doe, Francesco, and
especially Lulu, who learns to astral project herself and visits
the zookeeper's dreams.
Tinti has a taste for bittersweet whimsy, which often results in
stories marked by a wide-eyed magical realism. In "Preservation,"
Mary, the daughter of a well-known artist, works late afternoons
and evenings restoring murals in a museum diorama. But when the
museum gallery empties of visitors, a stuffed bear in the middle of
the room seems to come to life. Tinti wisely underplays the effect,
letting it complement and ultimately represent Mary's gradual
realization of her father's mortality.
An entire collection of such concept-heavy stories risks repetition
or inconsequentiality, but fortunately ANIMAL CRACKERS isn't
intended as a stunt and Tinti doesn't make animals the center of
every piece. In several stories, they play merely a tangential or
sometimes abstract role. In "Hit Man of the Year," for example, a
bison on a buffalo nickel symbolizes love and extinction for an
Italian mob hitman. Dark and affecting, "Bloodworks" barely
mentions a neighbor's cat until the last few pages when the story,
about the parents of an increasingly menacing child, has grown
bleakly unresolvable and nightmarishly hopeless. That this story
can exist so closely and naturally with lighter fare like "Gallus
gallus" --- which features, among other oddball characters, a man
who never learned to tie his shoes --- reveals Tinti's considerable
range of tone and emotion.
Not everything in ANIMAL CRACKERS works quite so well, however.
Tinti's style is streamlined and focused, and every element is
perfectly calibrated to exact a particular emotion from the reader
or to reinforce a specific theme in the material. Such control is
impressive, but too often, as in "Hit Man of the Year" and "Gallus
gallus," it chokes the stories of spontaneity and creates the sense
that the characters do not extend beyond the boundaries of the
first and last sentences.
Tinti's conceptual derring-do occasionally outstrips her practical
abilities, but ANIMAL CRACKERS remains an impressive and engaging
debut from an author who has no fear of sticking her neck
Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on December 22, 2010