Jill McCorkle's new collection of twelve short stories is peopled with characters brilliantly like us-flawed, clueless, endearing. These stories are also animaled with all manner of mammal, bird, fish, reptile-also flawed and endearing. She asks, what don't humans share with the so-called lesser species? Looking for the answer, she takes us back to her fictional home town of Fulton, North Carolina, to meet a broad range of characters facing up to the double-edged sword life offers hominids. The insight with which McCorkle tells their stories crackles with wit, but also with a deeper-and more forgiving-wisdom than ever before. In Billy Goats, Fulton's herd of seventh graders cruises the summer nights, peeking into parked cars, maddening the town madman. In Monkeys, a widow holds her husband's beloved spider monkey close along with his deepest secrets. In Dogs, a single mother who works for a veterinarian compares him-unfavorably-with his patients. In Snakes, a seasoned wife sees what might have been a snake in the grass and decides to step over it. And, in the exquisite final story, Fish, a grieving daughter remembers her father's empathy for the ugliest of all fishes. The success behind Jill McCorkle's short stories-and her novels-is, as one reviewer noted, her skill as an archaeologist of the absurd, an expert at excavating and examining the comedy of daily life (Richmond Times-Dispatch). Yes, and also the tragedy.
The title creatures of McCorkle's third short story collection and eighth book are humans with animal qualities and animals with human qualities. In lesser hands, such a setup could be formulaic, but McCorkle has a poet's skill and the necessary restraint to make the conceit work. The interconnected stories follow the arc of a life span, beginning with the memory of a summer evening in 1970 in smalltown North Carolina. Running in a pack, the neighborhood children follow the mosquito truck and get high on its fumes, talk about murder and suicide, and swim clandestinely in a motel pool. The way these seventh graders deal with their impulses and fears foreshadows their way of handling life's crises as adults. Their candid voices, the foundation of any McCorkle fiction, are heard in the remaining 11 stories. In "Snipe," six-year-old Caroline realizes how vulnerable her bullying older brother is. "Chickens" features another unmasking, this one performed by the narrator, a woman on her honeymoon with perhaps the wrong man. In "Hominids," the husbands duke it out for the role of Alpha Male at a reunion, while the wives retreat to the kitchen. This is all background to the narrator's recollection of her sympathetic reaction to a model of Lucy at the science museum. McCorkle's two chief strengths are her earthiness and her command of narrative voices, and she is at the top of her game here. The stories are at once intricate and compulsively readable, redolent of the small failures and triumphs of human life. 16-city author tour.