Saturday, March 14, 2015

Elizabeth McCracken’s Prize-Winning Collection

Elizabeth McCracken’s THUNDERSTRUCK & OTHER STORIES (which won the 2015 Story Prize) is her first collection of short stories in twenty years. It was worth the wait. There are nine beautiful, finely crafted stories.

Common themes become apparent: children are lost, bullied, starved, wounded. There are fraught relationships between parents and children. Happiness is elusive. Tragedy lies in wait and catches its victims by surprise.

But, as Sylvia Brownrigg wrote in the New York Times (6/5/14): “The fact that there is nothing depressing about the ubiquity of accident and disaster in ‘Thunderstruck and Other Stories’ is a powerful testament to the scratchy humor and warm intelligence of McCracken’s writing.”

“Something Amazing” is a grim (and somewhat Grimm) story of two mothers. The first is laid low by grief and haunted by her young daughter who has died from lymphoma. She has sealed off the girl’s room but Missy is “everywhere in the house, no matter how their mother scrubs and sweeps and burns and purges.” The dead girl’s brother is left to cope with his mother alone:

“ ‘I would die without you,’ she tells her son one morning. He knows it’s true, just as he knows he’s the only one who would care. Sometimes he thinks it wouldn’t be such as bad bargain, his mother’s death for his own freedom."

Because of her odd behavior and appearance, the neighborhood children believe this grieving mother is a witch. A dirty, bullied child comes to her door. She takes him in and bathes him (even though her inner voice tells her ‘you can’t just bathe someone else’s child’). She unseals the dead
daughter’s room to find toys and clothes for this little stranger. He is willing to do whatever she asks because, he believes, only then will this witch grant his wish – to make his brother, his tormentor, disappear. He doesn’t know that Santos, the bullying brother, has played hooky and boarded a bus where a man has said to him, “Sit here.”

The second mother searches frantically for her boy, not knowing he is right across the street in her neighbor’s house: “She doesn’t know where Santos is, either, but Santos is old enough to take care of himself (though she’s wrong in thinking this – Santos even now is in terrible trouble, Santos, miles away, is calling for her).”

In “Juliet,” a woman has been murdered and a teenaged boy has been arrested. His distraught mother thinks:

“What can you do? Your son, your only boy – whether he killed somebody or not, though he didn’t – is lost to you. He never could have killed anyone. He never even liked horror movies. He was always respectful. He believes in God. And if – though he didn’t! – if he did kill her, that’s one life gone already. Your child used to live in your house, and he has been taken from you, and all you can hope for is that eventually he will be returned. He will already be ruined. The best you can hope for is your ruined boy back in your house.”

And in “The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs,” an English couple living in France has put their house in their son’s name to protect it from bankruptcy. The son, who was physically abused – an arm repeatedly broken -- by his stepfather, has become an alcoholic and drug addict. He announces that he is going to sell the house which will leave his parents homeless. Despite his bad behavior, everyone loves this son, his father thinks: “Sometimes Tony thought that was Malcolm’s problem, overexposure to the rays of love, a kind of melanoma of the soul.” But he understands his son:

“There was a small part of him that believed he’d sell out every single person he loved, too, if it allowed him to be rid of his obligations of love forever.”

In McCracken’s stories, disaster lurks.

The parents in “Thunderstruck” take their twelve year old to Paris for the summer, in hopes of breaking the cycle of her bad behavior. She seems to blossom there and to become all they’d hoped her to be – until the hospital calls to tell them she has suffered a traumatic and permanent brain injury. While her parents were sleeping, she has gone out, without their knowledge, to drink wine with boys she met in a park and the result is tragic.

In “The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs,” a character looks at a couple who have come to possibly buy his car and thinks:

“They had some terrible story, too, or soon would. He wished he found this realization ennobling, but he didn’t: he was furious at them for whatever sadness they’d already experienced, whatever tragedy was just a headlight glow on the road ahead.”

And, the grandmother in “Hungry” says,

“When disasters happened (her mother had taught her) you strode firmly in the opposite direction, because calamity followed catastrophe followed disaster. People who believed things couldn’t get worse were the ones who were killed by man or nature. You had to get away.”

McCracken’s characters search for happiness and it is often a futile search.

In “Some Terpsichore,” a battered woman says,

“I didn’t know what would become of him. I had to quit caring. It wasn’t love and … it wasn’t a fear of being alone that kept me there: it was wanting to know the end of the story and wanting the end to be happy.”

In “Juliet,” the narrator says:

“Surely there is happiness somewhere in the world. And God will forgive you if, for a moment, you labor under the common misperception that happiness is created – you’d swear one of the students has done a science-fair project on this – when two unhappy people collide and one of them makes the other unhappier. It’s steam. It’s energy. It works: you feel something rise in you. But it doesn’t last.”

But in “Thunderstruck”,

“He looked at his wife, whom he loved, whom he looked forward to convincing, and felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness. It was a circus act, a perilous one. Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip.”

And here’s a wish for all of us: Clear the Lip.

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