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Last Day on Earth: Stories

Review

Last Day on Earth: Stories

Eric Puchner’s LAST DAY ON EARTH, a collection of short stories, revels in the domestic, finding and illuminating the strangeness in fairly ordinary human lives and relationships. His straightforward and plain language style perfectly balances the messy and complicated emotional interiors of his characters. There is humor here, as well as sorrow, and Puchner presents readers with nine successful, thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable stories.

The opening tale is “Brood X.” It tells of the subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in a suburban family when new and fascinating neighbors arrive. It was during a “summer of cicadas,” when, after 17 years, the bugs finally tunnel out from the earth and cling to trees and screen doors, filling the air with their buzzing noisiness. The narrator, Errol, is intrigued by Mrs. Jennings and repulsed by her son, Jules. The pair seem exotic and not in the least dangerous, especially to a boy on the cusp of maturity whose own family seems tame and sterile by comparison. After an unintentionally violent sexual encounter and a glimpse at the sad reality of the Jennings family, Errol is ready to move on from the summer. He, along with everyone else in town, is “relieved when the cicadas began to disappear” and life seems to return to normal.

"Each story in LAST DAY ON EARTH offers a poignant, emotionally charged and interesting perspective on family and self."

“Expression” also describes a teenage boy’s glimpse into the life of another family. After writing an A+ story called “The Infants’ Masada” for a school assignment, 15-year-old Blake is sent to a summer camp for creative kids. He quickly befriends his roommate who lives in town, though he stays in the camp’s dorms all summer. Chet, a musical genius, is also the twin of a dying girl who becomes, at least for the summer, the object of Blake’s romantic fantasies. Chet’s relationship with his sister is odd, and there is the low-level threat of a camp thief raiding the dorms. But, in the end, “Expression” is about learning to write and how to tell a story with patience and detail.

From swarms of cicadas to brothers making ugly faces at their dying sisters, each story in LAST DAY ON EARTH has a cool hook but also a deeper thread of insight running through it. Puchner’s tales are weird, heartfelt and fresh explorations of family and friendships, regrets and desires. Connected by these themes, as well as by Puchner’s funny and honest style, the stories also share certain character types --- lonely adult men and women who disappointed not only others, but also themselves. This is cleverly depicted by confrontations with children or with younger selves.

Jess, a suicidal woman, takes her young niece and nephew trick-or-treating in “Mothership.” In “Heavenland,” Kevin is a reluctant dad, babysitting his son while his ex-girlfriend, Charlotte, goes to the movies. Resentful of the baby having come between them, but still willing to at least be a nominal figure in his son’s life, Kevin sets out on a walk with the child  in a baby carrier and ends up at a cocaine-fueled party, doing drugs and finding himself in the bathroom with a woman he just met, while the baby plays on a floor scattered with choking hazards. In “Trojan Whores Hate You Back,” Alistair is a middle-aged man making one last tour with his old punk band, Trojan Whores. Life on the road with his former bandmates is quite different from when they were kids, as they struggle with alcoholism, hemorrhoids, break-ups and bad shoulders.

In a delightful reversal of Puchner’s usual point of view in the collection, he offers “Beautiful Monsters,” which depicts a community free of adults as we know them. Instead there are engineered and long-living children who have all the complicated feelings to which adults can relate. The brother and sister in the story are confronted with an alternate version of adulthood, one that is hairy and smelly, sad and painful, when a regular grown man shows up in their apple tree one morning. He is injured and frightening, but they take him in, tend to him, hide him from others, and develop a wary fondness for him. “Beautiful Monsters” is indeed monstrous and beautiful --- a memorable and melancholy look at adulthood and companionship.

Each story in LAST DAY ON EARTH offers a poignant, emotionally charged and interesting perspective on family and self.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 10, 2017

Last Day on Earth: Stories
by Eric Puchner

  • Publication Date: February 21, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1501147803
  • ISBN-13: 9781501147807