A stunning debut from an award-winning poet.
Populating a small town in the Pacific Northwest, the characters in Lucia Perillo’s story collection all resist giving the world what it expects of them and are surprised when the world comes roaring back.
An addict trapped in a country house becomes obsessed with vacuum cleaners and the people who sell them door-to-door. An abandoned woman seeks consolation in tales of armed robbery told by one of her fellow suburban housewives. An accidental mother struggles to answer her daughter’s badgering about her paternity. And in three stories readers meet Louisa, a woman with Down syndrome who serves as an accomplice to her younger sister’s sexual exploits and her aging mother’s fantasies of revenge.
Together, Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain is a sharp-edged, witty testament to the ambivalence of emotions, the way they pull in directions that often cancel one another out or twist their subjects into knots. In lyrical prose, Perillo draws on her training as a naturalist and a poet to map the terrain of the comic and the tragic, asking how we draw the boundaries between these two zones. What’s funny, what’s heartbreaking, and who gets to decide?
MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize nominated poet Perillo debuts a work of fiction in a lyrical short story collection that reveals a genius for plot and metaphor. The collection's 14 stories take place in the Pacific Northwest and chart a broad emotional arc: the sisters of "Cavalcade of the Old West," one subdued and the other sexually promiscuous, recall their youth before their temperaments drove them into different lives; a son receives the ashes of his emotionally distant father and struggles to perform a cathartic send-off, in "Ashes"; and "Big-Dot Day" finds a hapless boy dragged cross-country by his mother and her latest boyfriend. Throughout, Perillo shows a supple imagination and wit as she explores fate and its ironies: women caught in cycles of self-destruction; lovers wading through the ambiguities of erotic life; characters coming to terms with mortality. Varying in style and form, with shifts from first- to third- to second-person, Perillo tests the boundaries of the short story form, all while creating interesting characters and dynamic narratives. Though the prevailing tone is one of ironic melancholy, a subtle but sustaining sense of hope prevails. Perillo (Inseminating the Elephant) strikes a glorious balance between wryly intelligent prose and emotional force, recalling Alice Munro at her best. This volume's vibrant stories demonstrate the full potential of the short story form when put in the hands of a true artist.