Book Review: Bull and Other Stories
by Kathy Anderson
Autumn House Press, 2015
Kathy Anderson’s debut short story collection Bull and Other Stories is so thickly populated with cranks, losers, and tiresome eccentrics that reading it very often feels like attending a 20th high school reunion or a Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family. These are ordinary – often very ordinary – working men and women in bleak little nowhere cities in Delaware, and each of these thirteen stories, Anderson’s strange and virtually unerring dramatist’s skills fill out whole worlds.
It’s an off-kilter world, and although Anderson’s barbed humor is in evidence all over the book, it’s also a very sad world. Her characters are bitterly disillusioned strivers after cracked dreams, and over and over again in these stories, their disappointments play out against a stubborn belief in perfectibility. “When you love someone, you love everything about them,” muses a character in one story, against all odds given the events of the story itself, “ … you love their hair, you love their smells, you love everything that makes them what they are.” (That the story itself is called “Dip Me in Honey and Throw Me to the Lesbians” gives a hint of the mixture of tones Anderson works so well)
These are infectiously readable short stories, and Anderson’s skill at fitting them together so seamlessly is matched by her evident joy in getting straight down to business. The title story “Bull,” for instance, about a young man trying to come to grips with his father’s sex-change operation, cuts out the standard hand-wringing in favor of jumping right to vicious teenage commentary. And the story “You Are So Beautiful, To Me” opens with a sterling little bit of absurdist comedy:
The door salesman sat at Mary’s dining room table. “Would you like to see my whippets?” he said.
Well, when you put it that way, Mary thought, how can I resist?
“Whippets?” she asked.
“My babies,” he said, sliding out from his briefcase an 8”x11” color photograph of three whippets posed against a studio backdrop of snow-covered mountains.
I believe you came here to sell me a front door, Mary thought.
“They’re beautiful,” she said.
“I started with Daisy Mae, here,” he said, pointing to the whippet in the foreground, legs stretched out in front of her. “I fell in love, plain and simple. So then I got Thor and he seemed lonely to be the only boy, so I had to go for Raymond. Whippets are amazing dogs. Did you know they’re across between the Italian greyhound and the terrier? Not many people are aware of that. So smart. They could knock yours socks off with the things they know.”
I can see that the door-selling job is just a way to have an audience for your whippet tales, Mary thought.
“Let me tell you what Daisy Mae did the other day,” he said, leaning forward. “And I’ll prove to you without a shadow of a doubt that my little whippet is smarter than your average high school graduate.”
“What school district?” she asked, thinking quickly, I have got to stop this train.
He blinked twice, fast. Then he launched into a complicated story involving false teeth, a baby rabbit, and a wheelbarrow.
In one of the collection’s most moving stories, “Chew On That,” a mother daunted by her son’s autism can’t help but see something desirable in the simpler, dumber worlds all around her:
Hard to believe that baby rabbits born tonight will be all grown up and ready to mate in six months, but it’s true. Birth, mating, death – all happen with dizzying speed with rabbits and she notes it all in her records. Which doe mates with which buck, how many babies are born in each litter, how many are born dead, which ones survive their first days. Things happen in the rabbit world and nobody blames anyone else, nobody rages and turns on the other.
There’s a remarkable no-nonsense intelligence and grace to these funny, ugly stories; they brim with the assurance of an important new literary voice.. If there’s any justice in the Republic of Letters, Kathy Anderson will be wooed away from Autumn House Press with ostentatious cash blandishments by a major publishing house before the year is over.