Science Inspires Thomas Pierce in This New Story Collection

Hall of Small Mammals is a disquieting book of bizarre, brainy tales from a young Virginia-based writer.

An aging woman gets a call from her son. The son has an odd job. He works for a show that brings species back from total extinction. Science these days!

The young man has recently recreated a mammoth via cloning. The idea behind the show is that, after the recreated animal has been filmed at length, he or she will be retired to a peaceful kind of farm/zoo. But not this mammoth. Higher-ups have ordered that she (her name is Shirley Temple III) bite the dust. And the son’s girlfriend can’t bring herself to administer the deadly blow. Can the aging woman—“Mawmaw”—take care of the mammoth for a while?

The question isn’t really a question. This man bullies his mother. He never really allows her wiggle room. And she is weak-willed; she does not stand up for herself. One could argue that, in failing to assert her will, in failing to define boundaries for her son throughout his childhood, she has created her own monster. We get the children we deserve.

Life hasn’t panned out perfectly for Mawmaw. Her relations with her son’s father were always sordid. She considered ending the pregnancy. Now, she’s alone, and she relies on pills to help her sleep. (The author, Thomas Pierce, may be asking, what is wrong with the industrialized world? What has happened that has led so many of us to rely on psychopharmacological aid for a function as natural as sleeping?)

The mammoth’s name derives from a semi-complex story. Someone in Mawmaw’s family must have really liked Shirley Temple, the actress—and “the Good Ship Lollipop”. And so a dog was named after Ms. Temple; the dog was Shirley Temple II. Mawmaw’s son can’t be bothered to think of a fresh name for the mammoth, so he says, “Just call her Shirley Temple.” When Mawmaw points out that there is already more than one Ms. Temple in her life, the son lazily says, “Call her Shirley the Third.” (One idea Pierce suggests, subtly, is that many of us who are living in America are caught in unending adolescence. Though we’re grown, we refer to our mothers, to varying degrees, as “Mawmaw”. We struggle to look beyond ourselves. We can’t be bothered to take the time to think about a fitting name for a living creature under our own care.)

Mawmaw bonds with Shirley Temple III. She talks with her mammoth. Delightful descriptions of appropriate food and temperature are provided. The house becomes a kind of impromptu barn. But of course Mawmaw cannot acknowledge to anyone that she is caring for the mammoth. This would bring on legal repercussions.

Shirley Temple III becomes ill. Is the malaise spiritual or physical? Mawmaw can’t tell. And why can’t Mawmaw—who is sympathetic, and in possession of a sizable heart—provide Shirley Temple III with the full amount of love she so clearly needs? Is it because Mawmaw herself is depressed? And who among us, in America in 2015, is not at least slightly depressed? Is it possible to be sane in such a crazed era, in such crazed climes? All of these questions are on the writer’s mind, and they’re raised gently, thoughtfully.

The final moment in Mawmaw’s story is chilling. She is regarding her callous son near her house. She clearly feels repelled by him. (He has earlier conceded that he has entertained thoughts of just clubbing the mammoth over the head—or letting it die a slow, painful death from illness—for these actions would be expedient solutions to his own tiny problem.) “What’s the matter?” the son asks, perceiving his own mother’s disgust. “It’s (just) me.” End of story, end of scene.

Other stories also gesture toward the pervasive unease we might note in this country. What makes a human “human”? If we can one day download consciousness onto a machine, then what will be the purpose of flesh and blood? If we can divide our worlds into tinier and tinier particles—where does the dividing stop? Is there a unit smaller than any we’ve yet discovered? And if there isn’t, then what’s “at the bottom of things”? If I dream a very detailed, realistic marriage to a fictional man who is not my husband—and the dreams keep recurring—then am I cheating? What is really going on while I’m dreaming? Given that dreams are a part of my life, shouldn’t they be considered lived experience? But of course, they aren’t really lived experience—not entirely, right?

Clearly, Pierce has a fascination with science, and he has mined it thoroughly—to our advantage.

That said, some stories are weaker than others. A brief vignette about a mysterious skull raises some good questions about religion, but stops before it should, at least to my mind. And a story about a man with a somewhat bratty child in his care appears, still, to be in draft form; in my view, it seems not to have an urgent reason for existing.

These are minor qualms, however. The first story, along with “Felix Not Arriving” (about a flawed comic), and a short account of several hours in a cult-like Boy Scouts-esque camp, more than merit the price of admission.

This young writer is one to watch.

RATING 6 / 10