In her third story volume, McCorkle (Final Vinyl Days, 1998, etc.) again demonstrates that there’s room to grow in New Southern fiction as she explores various stages of human existence with emphasis on our kinship with animals.
It’s the narrative voice that distinguishes this North Carolina–born author from her less accomplished regional peers. McCorkle’s prose is contemporary without annoying K-Mart modernism, cognizant of her characters’ quirks without making them gothic freaks. Only the ubiquitous animal metaphors are occasionally strained, though they work brilliantly in the best pieces. “Billy Goats” ponders human vulnerability and male cruelty as the adult narrator recalls biking at dusk with other friends “too old for kick the can and too young to make out,” vowing never to be like the disappointed, depressed adults in their small hometown. (Scattered references pinpoint McCorkle’s habitual setting of Fulton, North Carolina.) “Hominids” is a scathing monologue by a 40ish wife sick to death of the dirty jokes and obsession with breasts of the men gathered for her husband’s annual golf weekend—readers can easily imagine the guys beating their chests and posturing for fellow gorillas. Not that the female characters are perfect: “If I were a dog I would have been put down by now,” boasts the angry, self-isolated narrator of “Dogs,” and the dead mother in “Toads” is revealed to have stifled two husbands with her insistence on being a depressed victim. Some of the best stories in the collection, which follows the arc of a lifespan, concern the elderly. Strongest of all is “Turtles,” a searing portrait of life in a nursing home and the slow, agonizing loss of mental and physical faculties. Though McCorkle deals uncompromisingly with often grim material, there’s still plenty of tough-minded humor and an elegiac tenderness for happiness past, struggles long ago won or lost, our perennial yearning for love.
Uneven in execution, but permeated with a mature understanding that our lives are an accumulation of moments—and we live most fully when we slow down to savor or recollect them.