[27 August 2014]
Elizabeth McCracken’s first collection of short fiction since 1993 can be quantified by one word: loss. Four of the nine stories feature dead adults. Other stories feature abusive marriages, bankruptcy, alcoholism, missing persons, and a permanently brain-damaged 12-year-old girl.
An immensely cheering collection of work.
Despite the serious subject matter, McCracken’s writing here retains all the quirky humor and madcap intensity that made 1996’s The Giant’s House a nominee for the National Book Award. But of course, all is not joyous in Mudville.
In 2006 McCracken became very happily pregnant. She was living in Savary, France, with her husband in a rambling farmhouse that once housed unwedded pregnant teen girls. The couple nicknamed their unborn son Pudding. At nine months, Pudding died in utero. Autopsy results were inconclusive.
McCracken’s memoir of this experience, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, should top the list of Never Be Caught Reading This on Public Transit books, along with other tear-inducing heartbreakers like Ann Hood’s Comfort or the introduction to Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is the only book about a stillbirth, with humor in it, that you will ever read. This will not stop you from crying, however. That book concludes with the birth of son Gus, and the sentence “It’s a happy life—-”.
In revisiting An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination for this review, I realized I’d misunderstood that line. Preceding it, McCracken writes: “It’s a happy life, but someone is missing. It’s a happy life, and someone is missing.” (Italics author’s.)
“Thunderstruck” is an apt descriptor for McCracken’s state of mind for the collection of stories that is Thunderstruck. Much of the book borrows directly from McCracken’s experience of Europe, of Pudding’s death, of the ways life changes when one’s hopes depart and the bar lowers permanently.
The opening story, “Something Amazing”, introduces child ghost Missy Goodby. Neighborhood children love scaring one another with threats and sights of Missy, but Missy is interested only in haunting her mother, Joyce. Soon, though, there are newer, more interesting neighborhood stories to tell: those of the missing child Santos Mackers and his younger brother, Johnny.
“Property” borrows from McCracken’s life as an itinerant writer. Stony Badower, 39, is working as a cataloger in Europe when he is suddenly widowed. Bereft, he returns to the United States, to a rental home that proves disgustingly messy. After skirmishing with the landlord’s adult daughter, he manages to take ownership, only to learn he has disastrously misjudged the situation.
McCracken worked as a librarian, hilariously evidenced in The Giant’s House and here, in “Juliet”. Her recounting of the varieties of patrons, their behaviors and their library cards, is hilariously spot on, enough—should you possess that arcane object known as a library card—to make you wince. The story is also wrenching, for the Juliet of the title is murdered, leading to an ugly confrontation between the children’s librarian and a patron, leading in turn to the reference librarian telling the children’s librarian:
“You’ve done a terrible thing.”
The children’s librarian agrees. The reference librarian informs her that “everyone does”, but she is among the select that know their wrongs.
“The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs” is overrun with animals, human and otherwise. It sports eight bedrooms, is in France, and is unmanageable. Tony and his wife, Izzy, are bankrupt so, following French law, they have entrusted this mess to Tony’s alcoholic teenaged son, Malcolm. Malcolm, in a moment of clear thinking, has behaved reasonably and put the house up for sale. Tony, Izzy, the budgies, the dogs, the puppies, the kittens, and the African Grey Parrot are dumbfounded by this development, but the reader wants nothing more than to smack all of them over the head, then attack the place with a mop and bucket.
“Hungry” is excruciating. Ten-year-old Lisa is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother, Sylvie. Unbeknownst to Lisa, her dying father is about to be taken off a respirator. Oblivious as only preadolescents can be, Lisa happily gorges on all the foods her parents forbid, rapidly growing fat. Indulgent, grieving Sylvie hasn’t the heart to stop her.
In the title story, 12-year-old Helen is brought home by the police at midnight. Her parents are horrified to learn she’d been inhaling nitrous oxide at a party. Bewildered, they book a family trip to Paris. It begins idyllically Helen’s school French blooming into a useful, supple language. Helen herself adores France. She blossoms. Then one night the phone rings. Helen has slipped from her bed to a party, where she has fallen from a window. She hit her head. She will run away no more.
Thunderstruck’s stories, to borrow Carrie Fisher’s title, are postcards from the edge, a place McCracken’s creative heart has taken up residence. They are dark, sad, bitterly amusing. They also belie one of McCracken’s fears after Pudding’s death: that she would forget him. Pudding Harvey would be eight years old today. To read Thunderstruck is to realize this little boy is anything but forgotten.