Forgive Us Our Risks
By Lydia Peelle
Harper Perennial, 2009
When we travel, almost invariably, we return home with the souvenir of an altered perspective. Whether it’s that our favorite hometown now pales in comparison to that spot we found on an Italian piazza, or we realize that navigating our local malls is not nearly as exciting as navigating a Moroccan bazaar. Traveling changes our perspective on home. And so it is for literature. I’ve been away for a while, lost in translations, if you will. Recently, I returned “home” to read a seemingly humble volume of stories and the first book of fiction by Lydia Peelle. And though the mostly-middle American settings are, in some ways, more exotic to me than Moscow, reading this book reminds me of how revelatory an experience returning home can be.
While many of the stories in this collection have been previously published in literary journals, chances are you, like me, have not seen them before. And if you have read any of her stories, reading them collected into Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing is similar to the difference between sampling one glass of Napa Cabernet and sampling Cabernets from throughout Napa Valley – a wider sampling permits subtle and enticing complexities to emerge. Though most of the stories are set in the South, their characters feel less like Snopes’ great-grandchildren and more like very distant cousins. These characters seem to speak to a softening of America’s regional edges; the South of which Peelle writes is significantly different from Faulkner’s South. We can attribute this to the increased mobility of Americans – New Yorkers retiring to the South, Southerners following jobs northward – or even to the prevalence of regional-neutral media. No matter what the reason, the effect plays out in Peelle’s stories as an Americanization of the South.
“Mule Killers” opens the collection with a rural Southern story of an unnamed narrator’s unnamed grandfather and his unnamed son and his unnamed wife. In a dark twist of humor and a stroke of artistic design, only the mules and son’s former love interest, Eula, are given names. Given the otherwise strong bones of this story, the missing names seem to muddle more than enlighten the reader. From the title to the opening image, mules get top billing as they are marched to their death because they are being replaced by tractors:
The mules when they were trucked away were sleek and fat on oats, work-shod and in their prime. The best color is fat, my grandfather used to say, when asked. But that year, my father tells me, that one heartbreaking year, the best color was dead. Pride and Jake and Willy Boy, Champ and Pete were dead, Kate and Sue and orphan Lad, Orphan Lad was dead.
There is something particularly southern about a story that opens with a death-march of mules. A testament to the strength of Peelle’s writing is that the reader actually wants to save them. Nasty tractors. Nasty farmer mule-killers. Being aligned against the humans of this story makes it hard to feel sympathy for them, but in spite of their foolishness or perhaps because of it, Peelle makes them beguiling nevertheless.
During the summer when the tractors replace mules, the son (the narrator’s father) pines for Eula Parker. In the disjointed logic of youth, he decides that having sex with her pale-haired friend would be the next best thing to having sex with Eula. Sexual encounters prove to be as fateful as mule death marches when the pale-haired girl subsequently becomes pregnant. And stubborn as any mule, the boy fails to understand his dilemma and must be marched to the inevitable conclusion by his father:
My grandfather stares hard at my father’s knee and is quiet a long time.
“You done her wrong,” he says. Repeats it. “You got no choice but to take care of it. You done her wrong.”
In those days this was my grandfather’s interpretation of the world: a thing was either right or it was wrong. Or so it seemed to my father, and he was getting tired of it.
“No, sir,” he says, lips tight. “That’s not what I intend. I’m in love with someone else.” He takes a breath. “I’m gonna marry Eula Parker.” Evan as he speaks her name his is startled by this statement, like it is a giant carp he has yanked from the depths of the river. It lies on the step before both of them, gasping in the open air.
My grandfather looks at him with sadness rimming his eyes and says quietly, “You should’ve thought of that before.”
Mules and men alike bow in submission and what’s left years later, when our love-child narrator tells this tale, is a “a blasted plot of weeds and thorns and thistle” – all that remains of his dead mother’s garden. With the focus on mules at the start of the story and the land at its end, Peelle’s seems to be defining The South as a place rather than a culture. Is that the sound of Faulkner turning over in his grave? Ignore it. The change is welcome.
Whereas mules were not on my Southern fiction radar before this collection, panthers were. Between Ron Rash’s Serena and Carl Hiaasen’s Scat, phantom panther sightings have become a modern metaphor for the disappearance of the South, and perhaps even a metaphor for nature’s last stand against urban sprawl. Peelle’s second story, “Phantom Pain” gives us Jack an endearing taxidermist in a small town Tennessee. Jack is learning to live with the recent amputation of his left leg at the knee due to his diabetes. Distracted by phantom leg pain, he at first disregards the phantom panther sightings that have gripped the town as proof that people “have lost all sense”:
But the panther stories are different, told with pitch and fervor, a wild look in the eye. They don’t carry much truck with jack. No one, after all, has any sort of proof – a photo, a positively identifiable set of tracks, or even a really good look at the thing. For all Jack is concerned, it’s an overgrown coyote, someone’s German shepherd, or a figment of everyone’s imagination.
It’s difficult not to love Jack. In spite of their divorce, even his wife won’t really leave him; she insists on coming down to his taxidermy shop to make sure he’s taking care of himself. As the pain and his inability to do the job he loves wear him down, Jack finds himself identifying with the panther:
If a panther really is up there, sniffing out an ancient path its great-great ancestors once followed, is at this very moment twitching its great muscular tail and arching its back to run its claws down the trunk of a tree, dropping to all fours to nose at a beef jerky wrapper filled with dirty rainwater and picking its way around rusted old tin cans and television sets to make its way into one of those hollers, meowing a lonely meow – well, Jack thinks, pulling in his driveway and stopping to check the empty mailbox in front of his trailer – then I pity the old bastard.
Wrapped in the myth of an old panther and a decaying old Jack, all that is bygone – the South, the pastoral life, youth itself – is being mourned. Then, Jack begins to entertain the idea that the panther really exists and heads out into the woods for a look-see. A group of teenagers, among them Ronnie who works for Jack, arrives to scare up a little panther trouble. In a fit of youthful resentment, Jack hides and rustles bushes to fool the kids into thinking he’s the panther. Ronnie gets his gun and just as the story takes this dangerous turn, it ends and leaves both Jack and the reader suspended in a moment that feels inevitable and satisfyingly unfinished.
In an intelligent stroke of story arrangement, the next story gallops off with the thematic thread from “Phantom Pain” of youth’s recklessness and obliviousness to death. Only slightly hampered by a clumsy flashback framework, “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” balances breathlessly beautiful moments against those that are breathlessly cruel. During “the last summer, the last one before boys,” two unnamed adolescent girls work at a stable for a stud named Curt. Curt spends most of his days drinking, getting high and having sex with the women whose horses he stables. These women, like exotic animals, capture the attention of our girls:
Sometimes only one or two of them show up, and other times they all come a once, a half-dozen of them with identical beige breeches and high boots that we dream of at night. They never once get a streak of manure across their foreheads or a water bucket sloshed across their shirts.
While our girls work in the dust, shit, and blood of the stable, they quietly speculate as to what exactly happens behind the closed curtains of Curt’s bedroom. Then they take off to live out their wild fantasies on the backs of the stable’s two forgotten ponies:
The ponies bear witness to dozens of pacts and promises. We make them in the grave light of late day, with every intention of keeping them. We cross our hearts and hope to die on the subjects of horses, husbands, and each other. We dare each other to do near-impossible things. You dare me to jump from the top of the manure pile, and I do, and land on my feet, with manure in my shoes. I double dare you to take the brown pony over the triple oxer, which is higher than his ears. You ride hell-bent for it but the pony stops dead, throwing you over his head, and you sail through the air and land in the rails laughing. We are covered in scrapes and bruises, splinters buried so deep in our palms that we don’t know they are there. Our bodies forgive us our risks, and the ponies do, too. We have perfected the art of falling.
Just when they are feeling at their most invincible, death arrives at the stable and blows its frosty breathe of vulnerability onto the girls. The girls valiantly try to play on but take their adventurous dares one step too far. Curt steps in to rescue them and our narrator finally gets a discomfiting glimpse of the possibilities behind “the closed curtain.” But in the end, it is death more than sex that haunts her:
Death was familiar that summer. It was in the road, in the woods, in the holes of the foundation of the barn; it was raccoon rotting in the ditch, and the crows that settled there to pick at it until they, too, were flattened by cars, and their bodies swelled and stank in the heat; it was the half-decayed doe we found in the woods with maggots stitching in and out of its flesh, the stillborn foal wrapped in a rotting amniotic sac in the pasture where the vultures perched. We caught a whiff of it, sniffed it out, didn’t flinch, touched it with our bared hands, ate lunch immediately afterwards. We weren’t frightened of death.
If only the story would have stopped here – “We weren’t frightened of death.” However, in what can be forgiven as lack of writer’s confidence, Peelle’s framing story only bruises this otherwise finely wrought tale. More importantly, though the specific setting of this story is never disclosed, it probably occurs in the Deep South. However, the use of the word “rodeo” to describe the girls’ pony adventures evokes images of the Wild West and creates an intriguing regional blend. Wild South? Deep West? It’s all American.
When my teenage daughter saw the title “Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing” she asked if we have a choice. Indeed. Suicide does skirt the edge of this story, but thankfully, where one finds warmth in the cold urban winter of one’s discontent is more the issue. A deadened-of-spirit woman tries to make sense of her life after her husband moves out. “He hadn’t been happy in years.” Happy? We’re supposed to be happy? Throughout the story she tries and fails to keep her husband from returning in the dead of night for cold, lonely sex. It is the chance meeting of a stranger, a herpetologist, on a rush hour bus that saves her. He has “a grey beard, eyes big and watery behind thick glasses” and carries a large box. He lets her peek inside to see a turtle with “its shell mapped with orange and yellow and green.” Noticing her interest, he invites her to stop by his university office to see more reptiles. Once she arrives, its tropical warmth and the frantic energy of the tropical lizards enrapture her. Soon she uses any excuse to visit and the herpetologist is more than happy to share his passion for reptiles with her:
In the next cage, a giant Gil Monster sleeps under a heat lamp, its sides pooled out around it POISONOUS! Written in red on its card. A brilliant green gecko uses its tongue to wipe its eyes. The herpetologist’s face is shining. All these diverse adaptations, with one common goal, he says. To live to see tomorrow. He turns abruptly towards the back of the room, tripping over a cardboard box full of crickets. Come here, he says, motioning, and I go to him and watch a Barking Tree Frog, an impossible, unnatural yellow, delicately eat a fly out of his hand.
She mistakes her reawakened passion for life for a different kind of passion and confesses to the herpetologist her youthful attempt to kill herself by jumping off a bridge into a half-frozen river. He asks her if she was shivering when they pulled her out. “Of course I was shivering, I say, confused. He nods. Trust the body, not the mind, he says smiling. The body loves itself.” Artfully handled, as is this whole story.
Even more interesting, this title story is the only one in the collection that is set in a northern urban environment. The pervasive cold versus warm images, from the descriptions of the weather to the contrast of humans versus lizards, sets up interesting metaphorical questions. Does Peelle mean for the cold of the northern climate to be read as inhospitable to the warmth-acclimated Southerners? If so, then the fact that the narrator learns “to trust the body, not the mind” at story’s end speaks to a belief in our adaptability and perhaps even a belief in the necessity of change for our spiritual evolution. This is a more forward-looking vision than the steeped-in-the-past tradition that typically characterizes Southern fiction.
“Kidding Season” gives us Charlie, a drifter, like the carnival worker hero in another of the collections story’s “Still Point.” But unlike in “Still Point,” where the hero is so-lightly drawn that he is literally and figuratively overpowered by a tornado, there is nothing ethereal about Charlie. Charlie is on a mission to reach the disaster-stricken Gulf. He heard that “places were cheap, the water was warm, and the girls were looking for action …it was exactly where he needed to go.” But Charlie has little luck: his truck with “a pair of dangling pink rubber testicles” hanging off the trailer hitch (a truck stolen from his friend Daryl who stole it from some old man) breaks down. He spends all his remaining money to fix it and has to take a job from a goat farm owner named Lucy. Life on the farm is a rude awakening for Charlie:
When the male kids turned one month old, Lucy took each one and stretched a rubber band around its scrotum. Go ahead, she said, the first time he [Charlie] watched in horror. Call me the ball breaker. Just don’t think you’re the first genius to come up with it. Eventually, slowly, as the blood supply choked off, it all just shriveled up and fell off like a scab. Charlie crept around the pasture for a week as if it was a minefield, terrified of seeing one or – worse – feeling one squash under his boot.
Things take even a more brutal turn when Lucy gives Charlie the job of killing a crippled kid goat. Charlie had come to like the kid: “It was the only thing on the place that had a sense of humor” and decides to save it. When Lucy takes off for a few days to buy cheap feed for the goats, Charlie is left alone and cracks under the grim lonely burden of keeping the farm running. In accordance with his youth, he makes a decision that’s fateful and rash, and gives him a whole new reason to feel emasculated by fate, and to realize that sometimes we carry our disasters with us. Peelle sets up an interesting counterpoint of both a kid and a hero who are disadvantaged – one with crippled legs and one with crippled job opportunities. One is forced to stay behind and suffer; the other finds opportunities as a result of others’ suffering. Moving to The South to take advantage of a disaster reads a bit like the “Carpetbaggers have come to town” theme, except that in this modern-twist our hero is shifting from one hope-bereft location to another. Sadly, due to the current grim job market, this shift is taking place across our nation and not just in the South.
“Shadow on a Weary Land,” the last story, brings this collection full circle, back to the Tennessee of the “Mule Killers.” This time the developers, not the tractors, are invading the land. But there’s treasure to be found, Frank James’ treasure to be exact. Frank is the brother of Jesse and lived nearby. Dave, a character known only as The Musician, and our narrator, three men with nothing else going on in their lives, have decided that they will find this treasure before the developers do. While Dave contributes by connecting to the spirit of Jesse James for clues, the drug-loving narrator and a has-been musician head out to Brown’s Ridge with metal detectors, shovels, and hope:
We dig deep holes along the ridgeline, some because of a sign from the metal detector, some because Dave rolls his eyes back in his head and points, some for no reason at all. As we dig we call out to each other through the trees: You got anything? Nothing, man. You? Nothing.
But they keep looking and, warmed by the fires of hope, the musician takes the plunge toward fatherhood with a girl young enough to be his daughter and the narrator’s granddaughter. The fruitlessness of their treasure hunt starts to wear on the three characters and, all but The Musician lose hope and wander off. Instead of the “weeds and thorns” in “Mule Killers,” this countryside is left to sprout more and more cheap houses for Nashville commuters. While there is a mournful quality to the echo of nothing-ness in this story, life in the form of an impending birth rather than death in the form of mules, ponies and lost limbs, is what we’re left with. A new version of The South is born and, for bad and for good, it looks a lot like the rest of our country.
While there a few missteps in The Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing in the form of stories weakly framed or an elusive character or two, this collection is full of stories that pluck characters from a Southern landscape and speak evocatively to the American-ness of their experiences. As exotic as some of the circumstances of these stories may seem with mules being marched to their deaths and panthers creeping out from the woods, the characters are achingly American – naïve, determined, reckless, pursuing wealth, denying their own mortality. As much as we might resist Peelle’s portrayal of Americans, her characters could live in no other place. Perhaps we should stop being so consumed by our hunt for the next Great American Novel and instead look for Great American Stories, stories such as those in Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, which speak to what makes us peculiarly American.
Karen Vanuska‘s creative non-fiction piece “Lost and Found” was in the December issue of The Battered Suitcase. Her short fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She also reviews book for the Half Moon Bay Review and The Quarterly Conversation. Her literary blog can be found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/.