People get uncomfortably close to their primal tendencies in this debut story collection that highlights the quirky and uncanny.
Pierce’s stories feel like they’re set within spitting distance of George Saundersville and occupied by residents whose need for normalcy is complicated by the inescapable strangeness of our natures. In “Shirley Temple Three,” the host of a TV show dedicated to reviving extinct animals deposits a surreptitiously freed “dwarf mammoth” with his mother. When the host goes AWOL, his mother is forced to see how well her maternal instincts will work with the creature, and the story becomes funny but surprisingly touching as well. Pierce persistently tests the ways that creatures shed light on our own inscrutability: In “Saint Possy,” an animal skull of unknown provenance unsettles a relationship; in the title story, a zoo exhibit is supposed to help the narrator connect with his girlfriend’s son but does the opposite; and “We of the Present Age” is a historical tale about a naturalist who’s propositioned to present his discovery of dinosaur bones as a lurid and highly unscientific circus attraction. But Pierce can stick with Homo sapiens to convey his perspective on humanity. In “More Soon,” the collection’s strongest story, a man awaits the delivery of his dead brother’s body, which has become entangled in the bureaucracy of an international crisis; Pierce finds the dark humor in officialese (“R has been declared a biological weapon. Will call with more after Thanksgiving”) while exploring the more sober tension of seeking closure after loss. Not every story is successfully provocative—“Felix Not Arriving” is a relatively conventional squabble-during-a–family-visit tale, while “Videos of People Falling Down” is an overly loose set of sketches questioning our urge to mock others’ online foibles. But Pierce clearly has talent to burn.
A promising debut that studies hard-luck types from new and provocative perspectives.