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HAPPINESS IS A CHEMICAL IN THE BRAIN by Lucia Perillo Kirkus Star

HAPPINESS IS A CHEMICAL IN THE BRAIN

Stories

By Lucia Perillo

Pub Date: May 7th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-393-08353-8
Publisher: Norton

A prize-winning poet (and MacArthur Fellow grant recipient) extends her literary mastery with a debut story collection.

While these stories reflect the poet’s plainspoken virtuosity and elliptical compression, they are very much rooted in her experience in the Pacific Northwest. Perillo (Inseminating the Elephant, 2009, etc.) majored in wildlife management and worked summers at Mount Rainier National Park. Not that she idealizes or sentimentalizes the natural world, but it puts her very human characters in perspective: “There was beauty…and also decay, and the years were just a factory for changing one into the other.” The opening and closing stories (“Bad Boy Number Seventeen,” “Late in the Realm”), as well as one in the middle (“Saint Jude in Persia”), have the same first-person narrator, a young (initially), spirited woman whose love life is undermined by her limited possibilities, as she deals with a sister with Down syndrome and a mother embittered by the husband who deserted them. Funny and sad in equal measure, the stories find the narrator admitting, “I haven’t always proved to be the shrewdest judge of human nature. My romances have left me with a recurring dream in which I’m slashing tires and the tires’ blood is spilling out.” Throughout the fiction, blood ties are tenuous, commitment is provisional, and fate is arbitrary: “She packed her things and headed west, and when she hit the ocean and could go no further she tossed a coin and made a right-hand turn.” Thus do so many of the characters in these stories find themselves in the area around the Puget Sound, which more often seems a last ditch than a last chance. These are characters with grit and survival instincts, but ones who ask, “What was sadness, after all, but the fibrous stuff out of which a life was woven? And what was happiness but a chemical in the brain?”

Emotionally unflinching stories of considerable power, wonder and humor.