Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain: Stories


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 ...

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Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain

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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?

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Editorial Reviews

“Relentlessly compassionate, this is a collection for the mistake makers and trying-as-hard-as-we-canners of the world—which probably means all of us.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“Darned if this book isn’t more cheerful than anything else. It’s very funny and often beautiful, though not in the corny way of fiction that glorifies bad behavior or romanticizes hardship. It’s deeper than that, in the way that earned wisdom always is. . . . [Perillo] brings to these stories the poet’s gift for creating images in the mind so apt, they’re surprising, even funny.”
“Starred review. These tales are as beautifully patterned as poetry, saturated in feeling, open to ambiguity, and laced with electrifying images.”
Publishers Weekly
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. (May)
Library Journal
The characters in this debut story collection from Perillo, a Kingsley Tufts Prize—winning poet, inhabit a small Washington town on the Pacific coast. They make their way with marginal short-term jobs (as highway flaggers, boat sellers, or "slash burners" who prepare the mountains for replanting) or find a niche for themselves, like the poetry-quoting owner of Doctor Doodle's Donut Den, also the lover of one of the book's repeating characters. Perillo has an eye for the rich juxtapositions and ironies that can enliven a story, like the elements of a fixed-form poem with repeating lines or words. "The Water Cycle," for example, takes its title from the classroom topic on the day when a girl named Aurora is abducted by her estranged father. It is broken up into fragments with headings that mirror that cycle and also reflect the ways in which the other children imagine what happened during the girl's absence: 17 days traveling cross-country to the opposite coast, from motel to motel, ice machine to ice machine. VERDICT A memorable collection. [See Prepub Alert, 11/21/11; see also the review of Perillo's On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths on p. 114.]—Sue Russell, Bryn Mawr, PA
Kirkus Reviews
A prize-winning poet (and MacArthur Fellow grant recipient) extends her literary mastery with a debut story collection. While these stories reflect the poet's plainspoken virtuosity and elliptical compression, they are very much rooted in her experience in the Pacific Northwest. Perillo (Inseminating the Elephant, 2009, etc.) majored in wildlife management and worked summers at Mount Rainier National Park. Not that she idealizes or sentimentalizes the natural world, but it puts her very human characters in perspective: "There was beauty…and also decay, and the years were just a factory for changing one into the other." The opening and closing stories ("Bad Boy Number Seventeen," "Late in the Realm"), as well as one in the middle ("Saint Jude in Persia"), have the same first-person narrator, a young (initially), spirited woman whose love life is undermined by her limited possibilities, as she deals with a sister with Down syndrome and a mother embittered by the husband who deserted them. Funny and sad in equal measure, the stories find the narrator admitting, "I haven't always proved to be the shrewdest judge of human nature. My romances have left me with a recurring dream in which I'm slashing tires and the tires' blood is spilling out." Throughout the fiction, blood ties are tenuous, commitment is provisional, and fate is arbitrary: "She packed her things and headed west, and when she hit the ocean and could go no further she tossed a coin and made a right-hand turn." Thus do so many of the characters in these stories find themselves in the area around the Puget Sound, which more often seems a last ditch than a last chance. These are characters with grit and survival instincts, but ones who ask, "What was sadness, after all, but the fibrous stuff out of which a life was woven? And what was happiness but a chemical in the brain?" Emotionally unflinching stories of considerable power, wonder and humor.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393345469
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/20/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Lucia Perillo is the author of five books of poetry, one of which, Inseminating the Elephant, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She was also awarded a MacArthur genius grant. She lives in Olympia, Washington.

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