The stories in Elizabeth McCracken’s latest collection land as swift and true as a prizefighter’s blows, and often they feel just as powerful, emotionally speaking. Thunderstruck — how apt the title is. So many moments in these stories leave you stunned and reeling. The psychological punches McCracken delivers, with her keen sense of irony and mordant humor, are unforgettable.
A faculty member at the University of Texas, McCracken is best known for her fiction: another story collection, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry? and the novels Niagara Falls All Over Again and The Giant’s House. But ghosts of her past — chronicled in An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, a wrenching, exquisite memoir about her stillborn son — flit through this new work. She has made that long climb to the top-floor Parisian apartment in the title story; she has lived among the careless, wine-soaked ex-patriots in The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs. She has rented that discouraging, filthy cottage in Property. Once a public librarian, she has even worked among the stacks where a poignant drama plays out in Juliet.
In other words, McCracken knows the men and women and children in her stories. They’re poised on the edge of revelation, their pasts haunting the present much in the way the ghost of dead Missy Goodby sneaks around the edges of the collection’s absolutely perfect first story, Something Amazing:
“That thumping noise is Missy bopping a plastic Halloween pumpkin on one knee; that flash of light in the corner of a dark porch is the moon off the glasses she wore to correct her lazy eye. Late at night when you walk your dog and feel suddenly cold, and then unsure of yourself, and then loathed by the world, that’s Missy Goodby, too, hissing as she had when she was alive and six years old, I hate you, you stink, you smell, you baby.”
Missy’s spirit nestles near her grieving mother, who can’t let go, though the neighborhood kids who remember Missy don’t miss her much at all (“She bit when she was angry and pinched no matter what.”) But other less literal hauntings also wreak havoc in Thunderstruck. After the death of his wife, the young scholar in Property — included in The Best American Short Stories by Geraldine Brooks — has left her belongings with his landlady and fled the country. “He’d wept already, and for hours, but suddenly he understood that the real thing was coming for him soon, a period of time free of wry laughter or distraction.”
Back in America, he rents a cottage and is repelled by the mess and tacky furnishings (“The landlords had filled the house with all their worst belongings and said, this will be fine for other people.”) He consigns everything to the basement or the half-converted garage. In the story’s final paragraphs he realizes his mistake: “If Pamela had been with him that day nine months ago, she would have known. ... He had done everything wrong.”
How easily we banish the truth. The guilty grandmother in Hungry, “a bright, cellophane-wrapped hard candy of a person,” is looking after her 10-year-old granddaughter while the child’s father is the hospital. They “looked for comfort all over Des Moines: at the country club, the dinner club, the miniature-golf-course snack bar, the popcorn stand at the shopping mall, the tea room at Younkers, every buffet . ... ” Any comfort will be temporary; the woman’s son is dying, and all she can do is distract the girl with sweets and a Fourth of July celebration to postpone the inevitable.
So it goes for the father trying to appease the grown, unreliable son who can yank away his home in The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs; the grocery store manager who believes he saved a boy’s life in The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston; the dying title character in Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey, who has always believed the film about him was character assassination. With compassion and without sentimentality, McCracken brings home the truth to them all.
Nowhere is reality more obscured than in the title story, in which worried parents take their daughters to Paris for a month, fearing the older girl’s precocious behavior. But dangers lurk everywhere, and a tragedy occurs. (“This was why you had two children. This is why you didn’t.”) The mother understands the situation immediately; the father sees things differently. But in the final sentences of the story, considering the truth, he isn’t destroyed, and he isn’t broken:
“He looked at his wife, whom he loved, whom he looked forward to convincing, and felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness. It was a circus act, a perilous one. Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip.”
The beauty of McCracken’s stories — of her entire body of work, really — is that though she’s unsparing, she believes clearing that lip is possible. Sometimes, small joys arise amid the chaos. Isn’t that a wonder?
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.