A consistently arresting, frequently stunning collection of eight stories.
Though Russell enjoyed her breakthrough—both popular and critical—with her debut novel (Swamplandia!, 2011), she had earlier attracted notice with her short stories (St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, 2006). Here, she returns to that format with startling effect, reinforcing the uniqueness of her fiction, employing situations that are implausible, even outlandish, to illuminate the human condition. Or the vampire condition, as she does in the opening title story, where the ostensibly unthreatening narrator comes to term with immortality, love and loss, and his essential nature. Then there’s “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” about a 14-year-old boy’s sexual initiation during a summer in which he is so acutely self-conscious that he barely notices that his town has been invaded by sea gulls, “gulls grouped so thickly that from a distance they looked like snowbanks.” Perhaps the most ingenious of this inspired lot is “The New Veterans,” with a comparatively realistic setup that finds soldiers who are returning from battle given massages to reduce stress. In one particular relationship, the elaborately tattooed back of a young veteran provides a narrative all its own, one transformed by the narrative process of the massage. The interplay has profound implications for both the masseuse and her initially reluctant patient; both discover that “healing hurts sometimes.” The two shortest stories are also the slightest, though both reflect the seemingly boundless imagination of the author. “The Barn at the End of Our Term” finds a seemingly random group of former presidents in denial (at both their loss of power and the fact that they have somehow become horses), and “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” presents the “Food Chain Games” as the ultimate spectator sport. With the concluding “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” about a group of teenage bullies and an urban scarecrow, the fiction blurs all distinction between creative whimsy and moral imperative.
Even more impressive than Russell's critically acclaimed novel.