The Heaven of Animals: Stories
Here’s a challenge for any writer: Take as your subject matter the most depressing domestic dramas imaginable --- the deaths of parents and babies and spouses, a son’s slow deterioration from AIDS, amputation, infidelity --- and craft stories that are hopeful without necessarily being uplifting, stories that acknowledge the pain of unbearable grief and a character’s inability to make wise decisions but that leave the reader feeling enriched rather than disillusioned. That appears to have been the challenge David James Poissant assigned to himself. His story collection, THE HEAVEN OF ANIMALS, confronts many of life’s difficulties, the inevitable as well as the self-inflicted, and the result is, for the most part, an assured debut.
Many of the pieces are set in the American South, specifically Florida, Georgia and Kentucky, and in Arizona. The protagonists are young, from preteens to men and women in their late 30s or early 40s. Most of the adults’ jobs don’t garner them a lot of respect: short-order cooks and garage mechanics, telemarketers and middle school Spanish teachers. Poissant’s focus is on the quotidian concerns of ordinary people enduring miseries that have befallen them or that they have created. You need to possess two talents if you want to avoid alienating readers with this kind of material: compassion and a gift for the well-turned phrase. The best of Poissant’s stories display these gifts in abundance.
"Poissant’s relentlessly melancholy stories don’t always reassure, but they remind us that skilled writers can turn even dour subjects into compelling fiction."
The pieces that bracket this collection, “Lizard Man” and the title story, are among the book’s strongest. Both focus on a father, Dan Lawson, and his relationship with his son, Jack. In the first, Jack is a teenager when Dan, who works as a late-shift cook in a diner, catches him kissing another boy. He responds by throwing Jack through a window. Their relationship is juxtaposed with the main storyline, in which Dan and his friend Cam, a devoted parent whose young son loves him, drive from St. Petersburg to Lee, Florida, to clear out Cam’s deceased father’s house. In the title story, it’s 15 years later, and Jack, now an ocean life researcher in La Jolla, California, calls to tell his father, “I’ve got a pretty bad case of AIDS.” Dan’s cross-country trek to reconcile with the son he has barely seen in 10 years is a devastating portrait of a parent’s attempt to grapple with the animosities he has engendered.
Other stories in this collection are equally powerful. In “Amputee,” a 30-year-old divorcé searches the grounds of his apartment complex for the missing cat he was supposed to watch for a neighbor. A chance encounter with a 17-year-old who looks like his ex-wife leads to a surprising discovery and raises questions about the extent to which reinvention is a suitable cure for hardship. “100% Cotton” is a brilliant piece of flash fiction about a man who wanders through a tough Atlanta neighborhood after dark in the hope of getting held up by a robber. In the disturbing “Refund,” the middle-income parents of a gifted and talented six-year-old disagree on the steps they should take to further their son’s development. And the two stories that constitute “The Geometry of Despair” depict the challenges a young Atlanta couple faces as they try to rebuild their lives and marriage after their one-month-old baby dies from SIDS.
As is the case with many story collections, not every work in THE HEAVEN OF ANIMALS is successful. In “Me and James Dean,” an unfaithful wife owns a beagle named James Dean, a present her parents gave her months before they died in a car crash. This story of infidelity and jealousy never rises above the obvious. The experimental pieces, one about a man who invites a wolf in for coffee and another about a baby who glows, are too contrived.
But most of the pieces here are accomplished works distinguished by vivid writing. A couch-potato husband likes the “napalm glaze” that Doritos leave on his fingers. The EpiPens that an apocalypse-fearing teenager jabs into his thighs when he tries to extract honey from a neighbor’s hives bob “like banderillas from the back of a bull.” Poissant’s relentlessly melancholy stories don’t always reassure, but they remind us that skilled writers can turn even dour subjects into compelling fiction.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on March 21, 2014