The sky is falling, the world is ending, and Rumpelstiltskin is going to pieces in this intriguing but unfulfilling debut collection.
Arkansas-based Brockmeier won a 2000 O. Henry Award for the opening story, “These Hands,” about a 34-year-old male babysitter who grows ever more obsessed with the 18-month-old girl in his charge. The other ten tales have similarly quirky approaches, focusing on unusual living conditions or supernatural states of being. In “The Ceiling,” for example, a man has to cope with his wife’s new affair and the fact that the sky is slowly descending toward the earth. The narrator of “The Passenger” was born and raised, and now lives, in a never-landing airplane. “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin” portrays half of the well-known villain—literally one half of his body—living out a quiet life in contemporary America, eating lunch in parks and working at a department store. Brockmeier’s habitual strategy is to concoct a weird condition and then explore it in detail, but only in a few instances do we get the rise and fall of action—as in “Apples,” about a man who experiences his first kiss and sees his teacher killed by a flying bucket on the same school day; or the title story, about a middle-aged librarian who finds redemption in an eccentric old patron. Brockmeier’s scenarios are entertaining, even if reading them occasionally feels like eating at a themed restaurant—nice decorations, but predictable once you get the idea. He has a tendency to overdescribe (“A smile evanesced across her face,” “the sky grew bright with afternoon,” etc.), but in moments of high effect he puts on quite a brilliant show. The conversation between half of Rumpelstiltskin and the women at a local auxiliary club is an outstanding piece of comedy.
A promising first collection, showcasing a new writer’s significant powers of invention—though he seems merely to be tuning his instrument for future work.