If you happen to be male, and you also happen to be a character in a David James Poissant story, chances are you’re a conflicted father struggling to play caregiver. Or an irritable husband facing a divorce. Or a son in exile from a broken home. Some particularly unlucky characters get to be all three.
“The Heaven of Animals,” Poissant’s self-assured debut story collection, takes a penetrating look at the anxious state of manhood in the new century. In almost all of the 15 tightly plotted entries, bruised and agitated men strive to rise above their reptilian brains and channel more nurturing mammalian instincts. The unspoken argument often driving the action comes down to the age-old debate of nature vs. nature, and not only in terms of genetic predisposition. Poissant’s everyman cast — mechanics, teachers, telemarketers — long to find emotional connections, but the forces of (human) nature keep getting in the way.
The collection is framed by a pair of linked stories that hammer home the author’s major themes via crisp, brutal storytelling. The opener, “Lizard Man,” finds newly divorced Dan Lawson drowning in guilt after throwing his gay son through the family room window. When Cam, Dan’s “last friend,” asks for help putting his late father’s house in order, the two men embark on a nervous mission into the swamps of northern Florida.
Poissant, who teaches writing at the University of Central Florida, fleshes out a convincing landscape of waterlogged dirt roads and rural decay. His authority becomes even more apparent once the men discover a hissing, 500-pound alligator caged behind the dead man’s shack. Returning the gator to the “quiet of mud and fish and unseen things that thrive in deep, green darkness” quickly proves to be a superhuman feat. The story veers into allegorical mode as both men wrestle with their long-submerged father issues.
The captive alligator wins the title for the book’s most ferocious non-human inhabitant, a real achievement in this crowded menagerie. Other stories feature killer bees, Gila monsters, piranha, sharks, a talking wolf and a actual goose attack. In “Me and James Dean,” a couple’s faltering sex life becomes more complicated thanks to an overprotective beagle. The dog pays a grisly price for his bedside meddling.
Animals also inform “The Geometry of Despair,” one of the collection’s standouts, which details a marriage in a far more severe crisis. Richard and Lisa, high school teachers in an unnamed Georgia suburb, attend group therapy sessions after the death of their infant daughter. It’s an all-too-familiar trope of contemporary short fiction — grieving parents, one of them eying the door — but Poissant approaches the subject with empathy and ingenuity. An outing to see a documentary at Fernbank opens the door to a telling discussion about Darwinism. In the film, flocks of gazelle and zebra descend on a lush basin in Kenya, “a kind of heaven” for the animals, then instinctively leave before depleting its resources. The lucky few who don’t follow the herd somehow “manage to outsmart evolution,” Lisa says. If gazelle can do it, the story seems to asks, why can’t humans?
“Refund,” also set in Atlanta, brings up similar questions about inherited traits and the pressures of conformity. Underachievers Sam and Joy live in the smallest house in their subdivision. He’s a telemarketer; she sells cosmetics to “those desperate to believe in the restorative power of an eyebrow pencil.” When their 6-year-old is identified as a budding prodigy, Sam wonders how the proverbial apple “sometimes falls far from the tree.” Taking the boy to a neighborhood meeting for gifted children only leads to a vicious hazing — a reminder that standardized testing is powerless next to nature’s pecking order.
The ultimate dilemma for Sam and countless other guys in Poissant’s stories isn’t so much survival of the fittest, but choosing selflessness for the sake of another’s survival. The title piece, which closes the book, returns to Dan, who’s still pretty much miserable more than a decade after the events of “The Lizard Man.” A call from his estranged son in California hurls him into a frantic cross-country drive, mirroring the journey in the opening story. Again, the author’s absolute compassion for his characters is undeniable, but his storytelling dexterity stutters in the finale. The white-knuckled odyssey is long on navel-gazing but short on new revelations into themes introduced earlier in the collection.
Poissant, whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, Playboy and One Story, demonstrates that mankind, especially American males, may not be so separate from the animal kingdom after all. However, he wisely resists a heavy handed polemic on millennial angst. His finest stories focus on the nuts and bolts of narrative. Despite the preponderance of scales, tails, fangs and feathers that occupy “The Heaven of Animals,” its real subject is all too human.
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