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.
About the Author
Jill McCorkle is the author of nine previous books—four story collections and five novels—five of which have been selected as New York Times Notable Books. The recipient of the New England Book Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, and the North Carolina Prize for Literature, she teaches writing at North Carolina State University and lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Visit her online at www.jillmccorkle.com.
Read an Excerpt
We used to all come outside when the streetlights came on and prowl the neighborhood in a pack, a herd of kids on banana-seat bikes and minibikes. The grown-ups looked so silly framed in their living-room and kitchen windows. They complained about their days and sighed deep sighs of depression and loss. They talked about how spoiled and lucky children were these days. We will never be that way, we said, we will never say those things. We popped wheelies in pursuit of the mosquito truck, which was a guarantee on humid summer nights. We rode behind the big gray truck, our laughter and screams lost in the grinding whir of machinery, our vision blurred by the cloud of poison. We were light-headed as we cruised our town-the dark deserted playground of the elementary school, the fluorescent-lit gas stations out on the service road of the interstate that scarred the rural landscape, past the run-down apartment complex where transient military families lived, past houses that were identified by histories of death, divorce, disaster. Sometimes we rode up to the hospital, a three-story red brick building that stayed lit throughout the night. We hid in the shrubbery of what was known as the lawyers' parking lot, a spot near the courthouse rumored to be the scene of many late-night rendezvous between people you would be shocked to see-mothers and fathers you would never suspect doing such things while their spouses and children lay asleep in their beds.
We rode way out past the tobacco warehouses and the railroad tracks, past the small footbridge where we used to play billy goats Gruff, our idea of who was scary enough to be the troll ever changing. We rode on, out to the localkennel, where one imitation bark could set off a satisfying round of howls that continued long after we'd ridden off in the direction of Bell's Econo Lodge, where we slipped fully clothed into the warm green water of the fenced-in pool, our cutoffs and T-shirts weighing us down as we bobbed and paddled back and forth. Sometimes we just floated there, buoyed by the constant rush of cars on the interstate and the still patterns of stars overhead.
One night we stopped and sat in a circle under the streetlight on my corner. We avoided the gaping storm drain across from us, home of many lost baseballs and bracelets and shoes. Only a few of us had ever been brave enough to go down into the dark muddy box in search of lost items. Those who did surfaced with vows never to do it again. This night we talked about Laugh-In and took turns imitating the stars: "sock it to me" and "one ringy dingy" and "verrry interesting." One boy, tall with a freckled complexion and ears that stuck out from his head, was a bit of an outcast at the junior high school. But here in the neighborhood where he had lived his entire life, he fit in. This night, he told how he had ridden his bike to the emergency room earlier in the day and seen a woman whose face was torn away, a child with a broken leg that dangled from its hip like a bruised banana, another woman who had tried to kill herself on aspirin and failed. He said he heard them pump her stomach. He heard her vomiting and begging to die behind a curtain meant for children patients, its little farm animals in primary colors swaying back and forth with the movement of the tall oscillating fan in the corner. "It was so weird," he told all of us, who hung on his every word. "The incongruity of it all." His acute observations and large vocabulary that brought laughter and scorn in the classroom were accepted-really expected-by the neighborhood crowd. We counted on him to bring us the kind of news that left us weak in the knees and too nervous to sleep.
One girl was planning to stay out this whole night. Her parents were out of town and her older brother didn't give a damn what she did as long as she didn't tell that his girlfriend was going to sleep upstairs in his lower bunk. If she wanted to, she could smoke cigarettes and rummage through her parents' drawers for signs of their sex life. She could drink some wine and watch TV all night, go door-to-door at dawn stealing the milk and the Krispy Kreme doughnuts that were delivered to doorsteps.
We talked that night, as usual, about the murder-suicide house, which was just two blocks away, a tidy brick colonial with a bricked-in herb garden-long untended-complete with a sundial. Some nights we dared to creep into the yard and collect sprigs of mint and lavender that we would rub and sniff for a long time after. We knew all the details of the house's story even though everything had happened a whole generation before when our parents were growing up here. There was the murdered woman, an accomplished violinist. It had been her desire to teach the violin, but when there was no real interest in town (who, after all, actually owned a violin?), she taught voice and piano lessons. There was her husband, the suicide man, who had once lived in Chicago, a detail that was always included to mark him as an outsider no matter how many years he had lived in town. There was their one son, who came back from his home in California to bury them both in an expensive mausoleum at the center of Hollydale Cemetery. Before the son left town, never to be heard from again, he told people that his parents had made a suicide pact. We were left wondering which was worse: to have one parent a murderer or to have both parents choose to depart this earth without a thought about how it might affect your life? Theirs were not the only suicides in our town; there were more than we would ever have guessed, but we took turns telling what we knew about reported hunting accidents and accidental overdoses, whispering as if the deceased might suddenly step from the thick pine woods behind us.
We also talked about the famous Hank Carter, said to have been a genius who "crossed the line." None of the parents explained exactly what the line was or how crossing it happened or if there were warning signs. All we knew was that Hank was proof you could go from being a clean, well-dressed high-school student who solved difficult calculus problems and aspired to be a NASA engineer to being a disheveled, bearded man who wore a cowboy hat and
boots and rode around on a moped with a pistol and other weaponry attached to his belt and a Bible tied to the handlebars. Sometimes Hank threatened to shoot dogs and cats and the tires of expensive cars, and other times he preached, though no church in town had ever claimed him as one of
We were discussing it all this night in July 1970, the summer of the Jeffrey MacDonald hearing. Jeffrey MacDonald was the man charged with murdering his whole family-two little girls and a pregnant wife-on the army base nearby. He claimed to have seen a band of hippies enter his darkened home. He said he heard them saying things like acid is groovy and kill the pigs just before performing an atrocious re-enactment of the Manson family murders. It had happened back in February and it was what the grown-ups discussed over their highballs and cigarettes, coffee and Jell-O, and Saturday night T-bones ever since. Had this good-looking surgeon, brilliant enough to have gone to Princeton, really butchered his young family? Was it possible that someone so smart and skillful could lose his mind, just snap and go into a bloodbath frenzy? To tell the truth, many kids had not slept through a night since February. Our minds were full of images of the beautiful young and blonde Mrs. MacDonald and of her babies and with the bits of gory detail the adults stopped describing whenever we passed through a room.
"My God," the tall freckled boy said. "Like we don't read the newspapers, too." And then he recited newspaper accounts of the state of the bodies, leaving us more light-headed than the mosquito truck had.
"Hank Carter has crossed over; he might snap even more," one of us inevitably said, and though the whole town had proclaimed Hank harmless, there being no reports whatsoever of his ever hurting any person or pet, I could never look him in the eye, even when he yelled in a booming, slow-as-molasses voice, "I say, girl, have you got the correct eastern standard time?"
Back then, when I wanted the time, I went to the phone and dialed 739-3241 and a man would say The correct time is eight-oh-two pm and forty seconds. I must have called him twenty times a day. He became a security blanket of sorts. Even now, almost thirty years later, I can close my eyes and hear every beat of his mechanical voice.
We were too old for kick the can and too young to make out. We were restless. We had learned a lot about murder that year. We knew that most of the time a person knows the person killing them. We had learned that alcohol and cigarettes would begin to kill off people we loved. Some of the grown-ups who sheltered us were disappearing from their windows like fade-outs, images lifted from the earth in poofs of smoke, puddles of drink. We were learning that, to be lost, a brain didn't have to be blown out all over a ceiling like in the murder-suicide house at the edge of town. We knew people whose brains were slipping down a long easy slope. There was a teacher we loved who got us confused with our parents. There was a man well loved in town for entertaining at children's birthday parties (a mediocre magician with an aging pet monkey) who had ended his own life.
"He was queer," said some older boys who had taken to hanging out in our neighborhood. "He was an old cocksucker." These were the same older boys who, one dark night that very summer, forced the freckle-faced boy to go down on them and then told us about it. They called him queer and they called him cocksucker and it didn't seem to occur to them that they were the ones who had demanded the act of him, that they were the ones who had pulled his serious young face into their damp bitter crotches and issued their orders. Did it occur to us?
So we did have to wonder about death. The slow poisoning of lungs and livers and brains. The pact a couple might make to end it all. The savage stabbing a man might fly off and commit. A kid-never the hunter, always the prey-whose only crime was that he was scared and too tired to fight back and who, when he could no longer live with the pressure building up in his mind, chose to treat himself with a gun barrel forced down his throat. But the boys who promised to share a beer with him out in the dark woods near the highway probably didn't make that connection. They probably grew up to drink their own highballs while their own children played outdoors, riding their bikes past the latest sites of domestic unrest.
As grown-ups, you have to stop and wonder what people are thinking, or not thinking. Do those boys, grown into the bodies of men, carry that death around in their pockets? Do they ever, at the height of sexual climax, see that boy there, his sad eyes pleading Let me go?
And the suicide-pact story, who knows if it was true? There was the note the son found, but how do we know the son didn't write it himself as a way to protect his dead parents? Or maybe the husband wrote it after he killed her. Maybe it was a murder of hatred, a murder of passion, and then he left behind a legacy of mutual love and decision. We will never know.
Table of Contents
Billy Goats (1)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
(08 January 2012 ¿ from Gill)I discovered McCorkle about 14 years ago, but she¿s very hard to find in the UK, so I was thrilled when Gill presented me with this US-sourced copy at Christmas. McCorkle¿s usual takes of small town life feature nothing very much out of the ordinary: that¿s their joy. The stories in this collection are pinned on the human life story, from being a child cycling after the town mosquito truck to old age, memory loss and death. There¿s also a distinct and interesting animal theme, with even a stepfather taking the role of a rather dull pet in one story. Beautifully observed and heartbreaking as well as funny: extraordinarily written stories about ordinary families, and just, satisfyingly, as I¿d expected.
The short stories in this collection are entitled with the names of animals. One of the conceits of McCorkle's collection is the intricate relationship humans have with their animal counterparts; how similar we act and behave.The story entitled "Chickens", where the protagonist gets into a relationship to avoid her first love; "Dogs" is the comedic look at a woman whose major relationships are with dogs, real and allegorical. "Snakes" is a tale of betrayal, of watchfulness, of a woman's jealousy and dishonor.The most moving story, "Fish", is told in the second person, from a daughter to her father, as he lay dying. As he sleeps, the daughter relates to him the story of his life, a life caught on a hook by depression, only to be let go by the love of his family. Lyrical, evocative and true-to-life, Jill McCorkle infuses her stories with the strengths and weaknesses of real people. Some stories work better than others. The story "Turtles" is a piece about a woman left alone in a nursing home, seeing all the men who have ever loved and left her. Its a bit messy at times, often predictable, and doesn't quite match the artistry and precision of her other stories. Each story is a gem, however, meant to be relished and savored for the tale it tells. Recommended.(Read January 2002)
Jill McCorkle thrills and amuses her audience with each story yet penned. This collection of stories is sure to be fantastic! Ah, and if it includes even minor excerpts from the reading she gave at the Sewanee Young Writer's Conference last year, IT WILL BE (UNDOUBTEDLY) OUTSTANDING. Buy this book. Buy Final Vinyl Days (and other stories).