The first time Brig saw her, he was sure she was Kate. She had Kate's dark hair, Kate's eyes, Kate's taut swimmer's build. She was not Kate. Kate was long gone. Were Kate here, she wouldn't look like this girl, or Brig didn't think she would. Three years change a person, and who, at thirty, could still pull off twenty? Brig couldn't. He hair was the give-away, sideburns silvered, the gray spreading like racing stripes over his ears. He needed to dye it. He needed glasses. He needed to lose the gut that had lassoed his middle. Would Kate know him now if she saw him? Would he know her?Short stories, even more so than novels, can deceive readers with their opening lines. A story that begins with such description-filled expository prose as that quoted above can turn quickly into something not expected, something more gut-wrenching than navel-gazing. In David James Poissant's debut collection, The Heaven of Animals, the majority of the 15 stories deal with characters who possess some crucial flaw, something that denies him or her their desires. No, that does not cover the extent of these characters' personalities and experiences. There is a quality to them that forces us, the readers, to confront our own expectations and to contrast those with what Poissant presents in his stories.
The girl who looked like Kate but was not Kate sat on a curb, her back to a lamppost, hair gauzy beneath the bulb. She wore denim shorts and a red sweatshirt, the pullover kind with the kangaroo pouch in front. There was no moon, but lamps lined the sidewalks and lit up the U of the apartment complex. A pool glowed blue at the horseshoe's center. It was late, the parking lot crowded with cars. ("Amputee," p. 28, iPad iBooks e-edition)
"Lizard Man" and the eponymous "The Heaven of Animals" bookmark this collection of stories originally published between 2007 and 2013. In these two tales, a father, Dan, has thrown his then-teenaged son, Jack, through a first floor window after learning that his son is gay. The repercussions of this event are what drive the two tales and in them, we see anger, frustration, resentment, confusion, and hesitancy spin rapidly through Dan's head as he tries to make sense of how he feels about his son. Some writers might have taken the easier path and shown a rapprochement; Poissant, however, shines a light on character motivations that many readers might find to be uncomfortable, if not distasteful.
These moments of expectation confrontration/twisting are not just limited to these two tales. In others, including "Amputee" and "Last of the Great Land Mammals," acts that typically would be viewed with scorn and disgust, if not then followed by a call to the police, are shown with such tenderness that the actions that are engendered by the characters' desires for something else, something beyond their perhaps-wretched existences become somewhat more sympathetic for the reader, albeit something that would not perhaps be condoned. It is a testament to Poissant's skills as a writer that his characters, no matter how flawed they may be, contain just enough sympathy to them for readers to latch onto.
There are very few "misses" in The Heaven of Animals. There are four flash fictions that differ in style from the longer narratives and perhaps are the most fantastical tales, but they are interspersed and do little to break the rhythm of reading the stories in successive fashion. Thematically, many of the stories are united by the specter of death and how it looms large in the lives of those dying and those who have lost loved ones, especially infants. The two-part "The Geometry of Despair" may be the highlight of this collection, as it traces two episodes in the lives of a married couple following the sudden death of one of their infant children. Poissant writes these two parts, "Venn Diagram" and "Wake the Baby" in such a fashion that the parents' grief and their moments of anger and guilt feel palpable.
The Heaven of Animals' mixture of realism with a few moments of surrealist qualities (especially seen in "The Baby Glows" but also in more mundane tales) makes the majority of the tales stronger for this mixture of elements presented in such a personal fashion. While the characters on the whole do not find answers or solutions, enough space is left at the trailing moments of their stories that the reader can envision several realistic paths that they may follow. This, too, is a strength of Poissant and coupled with his keen ear for dialogue makes The Heaven of Animals one of the strongest collections I have read so far this year. Highly recommended.