segunda-feira, 3 de junho de 2013

Stories of the Unkindness of Strangers By ROBIN ROMM



Stories of the Unkindness of Strangers

By ROBIN ROMM

Caitlin Horrocks


THIS IS NOT YOUR CITY
Stories
By Caitlin Horrocks
Illustrated. 169 pp. Sarabande Books. Paper, $15.95.

In “At the Zoo,” one of the stories in Caitlin Horrocks’s impressively sharp first book, a little boy recalls his grandfather’s interpretation of mouse thoughts: “I’m small! I’m frightened! Oh no! An owl!” The boy thinks, “I’m sorry you’re small and frightened; we are the same.” But quickly, his mind shifts. “Not the same. I am much bigger than you. I could hurt you.” Still in day care, he’s already exhibiting this most Horrocksian trait, “excitement at the capacity for harm.”
Though diverse in style and point of view — one story takes place on a ship hijacked by Somali pirates, another features a woman on her 127th incarnation — Horrocks’s stories share one consuming fixation. We live in a world studded with cruelty. Humans inflict it; the world inflicts it. How do we live with this bewildering truth?
Horrocks is more interested in perpetrators than she is in victims. In one story, girls just out of fifth grade form an unbreakable summer bond, entrenched in a world of their own invention. But when illness strikes one, the other cannot “afford to know” her anymore and so joins her classmates as they toss the girl’s wig around. Long after the friend dies, the scene lives on in the other girl’s mind, a devastating and terrifying first lesson in injustice.
In “Zero Conditional,” a third-grade portable classroom serves as the sinister new workplace for an adrift, off-kilter woman named Eril. The previous teacher, “quite the biologist,” has left several projects in the room, including bowls of gray “owl vomit filled with the fur and bones of whatever the owl had eaten.” Shrew skeletons, pieced back together, now lie “caked in Elmer’s glue, slivers of rib bones shellacked onto skulls.” A live rat, too, sits among the ruins. The class pet, he bears an ever-­growing tumor.
Unqualified to teach, Eril begins with the only thing she can think of, a lesson on the zero conditional. “If students misbehave, they are punished,” she writes on the board. The sentence foreshadows her darkening impulses. In a deliciously harrowing scene, Eril forces the most literal and observant student — who bothers her precisely because of those qualities — to run his finger over the rat’s tumor even as he quivers with resistance.
Illness, cruelty, rats: I fear I’m making Horrocks sound grim. But she deploys love and humor as convincingly as dread. In “World Champion Cow of the Insane,” a recent college graduate is hired part time to teach basic Internet use at a Michigan community center. There she watches as a spunky elderly student pecks out an obscenity-­laced note to his son: “Y-o-u ­a-r-e a . . . i-g-n-o-r-a-m-u-s.”
“Just so you know,” she tells him, “I don’t think a subject line that long will show up in his in-box.” Gamely, the student changes it to “Ignoramus = YOU.”
Horrocks’s motley crew of characters have this in common: They don’t find easy anodynes. Lyssa, the wife of a slaughterhouse worker and part-time dog­napper in “Steal Small,” one of the collection’s highlights, tries not to dwell on hardship. But when her husband gets his hands on a beautiful Dalmatian, Lyssa finds herself at a crossroad. Though she doesn’t ordinarily protest his questionable ways (he plans to sell the dogs to pharmaceutical research labs), the Dalmatian plagues her. Her relationship with the idea of rescue is thorny, though, and she fails to free the dog. Instead, like many of the characters in Horrocks’s appealingly rugged-hearted collection, she forges a messier path to solace. h
Robin Romm is the author of a story collection, “The Mother Garden,” and a memoir, “The Mercy Papers.”

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