Books Like 'Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain' Reassure Us that Short Fiction Is Alive and Well.
In this dispatch from the country’s uppermost western edge, we hear from what some might call Raymond Carver’s people—also known as the 99%. They are short of cash, of opportunities, and of hope for anything better.
Happiness Is a Chemical in the BrainPublisher: W.W. Norton and Company
Length: 212 pages
Author: Lucia Perillo
Publication date: 2012-05
Until now writer Lucia Perillo has had the problem of being a fantastically talented writer... of poetry. I write problem, because if reading literature is becoming a niche pursuit, reading poetry is right up there with using dial telephones.
For the attentive, there is Perillo’s book of essays, I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing, reams of important prizes, including a MacArthur Genius grant and a Pulitzer nomination. All should confer immediate credibility, but widespread fame has eluded her. Instead, Perillo commands tremendous respect among a few savvy readers, while too many people download the latest shade of vapid porn onto their e-readers. (This is not to say there isn’t good literary porn out there, say, Story of O. Or Anaïs Nin’s works. But back to our regularly scheduled review.)
Perillo struggles with increasingly disabling Multiple Sclerosis, an especially cruel diagnosis for a woman trained in wildlife management. Perillo worked as a park ranger until she was forced to stop. Certainly such diagnoses are never kind, but for a nature lover who once skied, canoed, and hiked lands now inaccessible to her, the disease is doubly awful: the loss of both physical prowess and access to nature color her work.
Perillo now lives in Olympia, Washington, a place famed not only for grunge music but heavy rains, logging, unemployment, and chronic substance abuse. Her first collection of short fiction, Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain is set in a fictionalized Olympia sharing the same troubles; meaning Perillo’s characters are a dispirited lot. In this dispatch from the country’s uppermost western edge, we hear from what some might call Raymond Carver’s people—also known as the 99%. They are short cash, of opportunities, and of hope for anything better. Alcohol beckons with its promise, however brief, of escape. Yet Perillo leavens the collection with jolts of wry humor, lifting a potentially bleak work into a darkly amusing book.
Three of the stories, “Bad Boy Number Seventeen”, “Saint Jude in Persia”, and “Late in the Realm” feature a protagonist struggling with alcoholism. She—we never learn her name-- works in a boat shop, where a quick tipple between customers is the norm. The protagonist’s sister, Luisa, features in all three stories. Luisa is an adult with Down’s Syndrome, a character that in less skilled hands could lapse into the saccharine or worse. Perillo’s Luisa is a whole person, possessed of a lively, literal common sense. When her sister, fresh out of rehab, attempts and botches a batch of cookies, she curses. When Luisa reprimands her, the following exchange ensues:
"Actually, those are very old words given to us by the Anglo-Saxons...Words invented especially for people to use when they’re in trouble.
You’re not in trouble... You were just making cookies."
In “Bad Boy Number Seventeen”, the same narrator enumerates a list of lovers, right up to 17, and they are indeed poor choices, leading to more poor choices, including an unfortunate tattoo. After discussing the necessary qualifications for bad-boydom, which include tight jeans, limited intellect, and the sense not to talk much, she adds: “Now, let me confess I haven’t always proven to be the shrewdest judge of human nature.”
Few of the women in Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain are shrewd judges of human nature: they light on whoever happens along. (Somewhere in there is a Ph.D. thesis: A Dialectics of the Washington State of Mind, or Can’t Find a Better Man.) “Big Dot Day” is narrated by a child moved constantly by his mother, who follows her unfortunate choices in boyfriends around the United States as her son, expert in packing one toy on short notice and the vagaries of cheap motels, tries to keep the boyfriends’ names straight.
In “Doctor Vicks”, a family has moved to a remote area after their teenaged son breaks into a home, doing irreparable damage. Confronted by his parents, he merely shrugs, a testament to adolescent apathy. The father, an architect, delves into designing the perfect house, while his wife, a “recovered” alcoholic, swigs Vicks cold medication while keeping house. When a traveling vaccuum salesman pays a visit, we learn that crevices and cracks hold her attention more than her wandering son or distant spouse; she gazes at the spaces between the wood-planked floors, the stove door, their lives: “It does not matter if your place in the world is small: you make the food, you clean the house... you know the only true world is the one you carry inside you.”
In “A Ghost Story”, a young college graduate, working as a flagger on a road construction crew, spends her days smoking pot to tolerate the boredom. When a freak accident lands her in the back seat of an older man’s car, she passively falls into a brief, possibly dangerous relationship.
“Cavalcade of the Old West”, gives us sisters Ginny and Stella, who are visiting the state fair, a ritual since childhood. Now middle-aged, Ginny is a staid teacher. Stella is an accountant who never abandoned her teenaged wild ways. The visit to the fairground, now more politically correct in its attractions if no less sordid, sees the waking of what Ginny considers Stella’s “black humors that made her angry and manic all at once.” Stella disagrees with Ginny’s assessment, preferring to call these moods “running on hi-test”. While running on hi-test, Stella sleeps with the fair personnel, waving off Ginny’s worries over potentially encountering one of Stella’s numerous ex-husbands.
Having lost the ability to venture into the woods, Perillo has become an avid bird-watcher, an experience chronicled in I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature and written into Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain. “House of Grass”, narrated by a male doctor, is an examination of mortality from the professional side. Having moved to a planned community for elderly residents, he cares for his wife, terminally ill with cancer. In her last days, he begins taking walks to the boat ramp, where he seeks respite in bird-watching:
“I must admit that I was impelled by beauty, in a life that at that time surrounded me with all the body’s ugly exudates. The perfection of birds is like that of no other mortal thing—their sheen, their obsessive grooming. You never see them get scraggly until the bitter end, and even then it seems the that it is the eclipse of their loveliness that kills them more than any underlying disease.”
The middle-aged Tim of “Ashes”, receives his father’s “cremains”—that is, what is left after cremation-- but has no idea how to dispose of them; he finds himself in a car with a friend and a half-dressed Vietnamese-American stripper, headed for an unceremonious burial at The Patriarch, an ancient, enormous tree. In life his father was abrupt, unkind, bluntly disapproving of his son’s work in the Pacific Northwestern forests. Tim would be content to dump the cremains near the tree and return home, but the young woman insists on a more meaningful ceremony: “That’s it? That’s what you bozos call a decent burial?”
“St. Jude of Persia” returns to Luisa, her sister, and her mother. The family has been abandoned by their father for a new wife and a larger, finer home. The women are left on a piece of land so remote there is no trash service. The protagonist surmises that living so far from civilization made her father feel competent, a sense undermined every time he looked at his eldest daughter: “Louisa stumped him, though, because for her he could come up with no quick fix. And Louisa he’d stare at without the least quiver of recognition, like she was just some wild child who’d just stumbled in from the forest.”
There’s a great deal more thrown in—a furious, gun-toting mother, the empty platitudes spouted by rehabilitation counselors, their unwanted hugs, the certainty of a future holding little better.
In “Anyone Else but Me” Prairie Rose, dismayed at the smallness of mother Ruth’s life, enrolls her midday aerobics classes. Ruth finds the ritual overwhelming; “Prairie Rose doesn’t understand how her mother could be satisfied with so little; Ruth doesn’t understand how a person’s life could accommodate much more.” Worse, Prairie Rose is determined to learn who her biological father is. Ruth, having no idea, is no help in the matter, nor can she understand her daughter’s consuming need to know. This need is reflected in the town’s citizens, some of whom are certain a chemical contaminant on a local rock formation is an apparition of the Virgin Mary. As the chemicals evaporate, the apparition fades, disappointing many, much as Prairie Rose is disappointed in her failed attempts to locate her father.
The best poets have an extra reservoir of words—adjectives, metaphors, sentence combinations—we mortal writers lack. Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain is filled with such constructions, the kind that make readers stop and sigh with admiration, even happiness, that chemical in the brain, for books like this reassure us that short fiction is alive and well. If readership of fiction and its sister, the short story, are truly shrinking in the marketplace, those who do not read seriously, or for that matter read at all, are the real losers.