Tuesday September 8th, 2009

The Lay of the Land

Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle
Harper Perennial, 208 pp., $13.99

At the risk of drowning Lydia Peelle in praise right off the bat, it’s hard to think of many debut short story collections from the past two decades that so convincingly chart their emotional and geographical territory: Ethan Canin’s Emperor of the Air, Junot Díaz’s Drown, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Peelle’s missteps would be peaks for most other writers, and her peaks — by my count, five of the eight stories in Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing qualify as such — make one almost angry this is a debut, like falling in love with a band’s first album and having no back catalog to immediately explore.

Peelle sets her stories on farms and prairies, at a midwestern county fair, in the half-wild lands that still exist just past the borders of the Walmart parking lots. Her tone sits somewhere between the earnest Americana of Kent Haruf and the wise-assed Americana of Thomas McGuane. In the opening story, “Mule Killers,” a narrator begins: “My father was eighteen when the mule killers finally made it to his father’s farm. He tells me that all across the state that year, big trucks loaded with mules rumbled steadily to the slaughterhouses.” The killers of the title are tractors, two of which the grandfather reluctantly buys, ushering out the era of the mule:

The next morning, after chores, my grandfather calls in the hands to explain the basics of the new machines, just the way the man in Nashville has done for him. He stands next to one of the tractors for a long time, talking about the mechanics of it, one hand resting on its flank. Then with all the confidence he can muster he climbs up to start it. He tries three times before the tractor shivers violently, bucks forward, and busts the top rail of a fence. “This one ain’t entirely broke yet,” my grandfather jokes, struggling to back it up.

The narrator’s father loves one mule in particular, Orphan Lad, with his “sharp shoulders and soft ears, the mealy tuck of his lower lip,” and he also loves Eula Parker, a dark-haired local beauty. Both loves are doomed. In seventeen efficient pages, Peelle pays subtle witness to the extinction of a way of life, an equally dramatic turning point in a father-son relationship, and an ancient brand of male stoicism (the father “laughs at the tractors just as he would laugh if one of these men made a rude comment about Eula Parker, because the most important thing, he believes, is not to let on that he loves anything at all.”)

Peelle’s figurative language is lovely and exact. It’s particularly impressive how so many of the unstrained ways she finds to describe the world would make sense to her characters, who live in various degrees of proximity to nature. To share just four examples:

He is an old man, nearing seventy, and the thin length of his body has rounded to a stoop, like a sapling loaded with snow.

His face, between the jowls, is the same as it has always been, like a familiar road widened for shoulders.

The morning is hot and damp as the inside of a dog’s mouth.

When he hears this, when he realizes his father is crying, he turns and rushes blindly back to the house, waves of heat rising from beneath his ribs like startled birds from a tree.

Peelle’s poetic gifts are joined by a sturdy sense of plot and a sly backbeat of humor. Her jokes can be folk-sarcastic, as in one character’s observation of an aimless friend: “There’s a point of no return, I’m beginning to think, and Dub may have passed it several thousand miles back.” Or in the description of a rescued dog that is found “half-starved and half-dead, a cross between a God-knows-what and a Lord-have-mercy.” But there’s another, understated and stranger brand of absurdity in the book, one that suggests the Coen brothers should option a story or two. Take the moment in “Phantom Pain,” perhaps the best story here, when a nurse hands a prosthetic leg to a patient: “ ‘You’ll forget it’s not yours,’ she says brightly, as she shows him how to put it on. ‘And it’s flame-resistant.’ ” If Frances McDormand isn’t the one to deliver that line, I don’t know who is.

In “Phantom Pain” and “Shadow on a Weary Land,” characters live in a vividly rendered purgatory somewhere between the truly rural and the well-established suburban. Highland City, the town in “Phantom Pain,” is seized by unconfirmed reports of a panther or mountain lion on the loose in the surrounding woods, but to Jack Wells, a longtime taxidermist, the fuss is just that: “For all Jack is concerned, it’s an overgrown coyote, someone’s German shepherd, or a figment of everyone’s imagination.” In “Weary Land,” struggling friends living outside of Nashville search for treasure left behind by Frank and Jesse James.

Given their disappointed lives, Peelle’s characters occasionally fall prey to nostalgia, but even their nostalgia is laced with hard lessons. In “Sweethearts of the Rodeo,” a woman reminisces about a summer spent working on a farm with a girlhood friend:

Death was familiar that summer. It was in the road, in the woods, in the holes of the foundation of the barn; it was the raccoon rotting in the ditch, and the crows that settled there to pick at it until they, too, were flattened by cars, and their bodies swelled and stank in the heat; it was the half-decayed doe we found in the woods with maggots stitching in and out of its flesh, the stillborn foal wrapped in a rotting amniotic sac in the pasture where the vultures perched. We caught a whiff of it, sniffed it out, didn’t flinch, touched it with our bare hands, ate lunch immediately afterwards. We weren’t frightened of death.

In that passage are nearly all of Peelle’s abundant talents, for rhythm, for scene, and for finding beauty in what’s dead or dying.

John Williams is the editor of The Second Pass.

Mentioned in this review:

Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing
Emperor of the Air
Interpreter of Maladies