Thursday, March 5, 2015
Book Review: Hall of Small Mammals
3 Stars - Recommended to fans of overly simplistic, sweetly strange short stories that have no beginning and no end
Audio: 8 hours, 35 mins
Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio
Narrator: MacLeod Andrews
I listened to Thomas Pierce's Hall of Small Mammals on my commute to and from work. More and more I am finding that, though I love short story collections, they don't work well for me on audio. For starters, I'm not in the best frame of mind - I have to leave the house at 4:30 am so I'm kind of still half asleep when I start listening. I can't take notes because, well, I'm driving and it's dark out. And that would be dangerous. So by the time I park the car and walk into my office to start the day, most of what I've listened to has already begun to fade away.
In the evening, I spend the first five minutes of my drive home trying to (a) let go of all the work-bullshit so I can concentrate on the book and (b) remember what the heck MacLeod read to me that morning. Fun (not)! And kinda frustrating. Then I walk in the door, eat dinner, go to sleep, and promptly forget the story I was currently listening to.
While I am listening though, the book is an absolute pleasure. MacLeod has a wonderful reading voice and Pierce writes in simplistically short sentences. His characters are awkward and full of flaws, and you find yourself liking them immediately. They are ordinary people in some pretty extraordinary circumstances. You're fascinated by their dilemmas. You're rooting for it to all work out. Which is kind of fucked up because his stories, while drawing you in immediately, evolve quickly and end abruptly. Pierce, in my opinion, concerns himself much more with the 'telling' of the story than he does with the 'resolution' of the story. Then again, maybe his art is meant to imitate life. Much in life is left unresolved. Isn't it? And so, we the reader are treated as passers-by. We are given quick glimpses, experience mere slices, of their lives and are left forever guessing about how things turned out for everyone.
My favorite stories bookend the collection. The opening story, Shirley Temple Three, follows the sad and confusing life of a dwarf woolly mammoth, dubbed Shirley Temple by the man who cloned her. The final story, about a unwitting, brain damaged brother who follows his sister on a revenge mission, opens with the two of them hiding in a closet from two menacing dogs and thinking back over their own damaged relationship and the circumstances that brought them there.
Pierce has a knack for making odd situations appear completely normal through the use of well-timed snark and an absolute refusal to admit that the situations are, in fact, abnormally strange. These are stories everyone can sink their teeth into. A father and son heading off into the middle of the woods to camp out with a slightly cultish boy scout troop in Grashopper Kings. In The Real Alan Gass, a dude, after his girlfriend confesses that she's happily married in her dreams, becomes obsessed with tracking down her faux-hubby, convinced he's a real person. There's a story about a guy who takes his girlfriend's spoiled, snotty son to the zoo to see a monkey exhibit in the hopes of winning some brownie points. And another in which a strange woman updates a man on the ever changing whereabouts of his dead brother's quarantined body.
Pierce has mastered the middle of the story. Now someone just needs to teach him how to tell the beginning and the end.