Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book Review: "The Heaven of Animals" by David James Poissant

Do yourself a favor: pick up this story collection. Now. You'll be moved, overwhelmed, touched, and blown away by these stories. Do it.

After finishing David James Poissant's debut collection, The Heaven of Animals, last night, first I marveled at just how powerful these stories were, and how much I enjoyed them. And then I remembered, no matter how challenging my life might feel from time to time, I am tremendously fortunate to have fewer problems than the characters in these stories. Man, in many cases, their lives are tough.

The stories in this collection are about relationships—between parent and child, spouses or significant others, siblings, friends, strangers, even between a man and his wife's dog. (No, not that kind of relationship.) In many cases these are people facing challenges—physical, emotional, financial—and they're struggling to right their own ships, so to speak. But while story after story about people in some sort of crisis could be harrowing to read, in Poissant's hands the stories are certainly moving, but they're told so beautifully and skillfully that you feel empathy, and somehow transformed by the paths these characters follow.

Whether its the father and son that bookend the collection in "Lizard Man" and the title story; the girl willing to sacrifice anything for her mentally ill boyfriend in "The End of Aaron"; the couple struggling after the death of their infant daughter in the two-part "The Geometry of Despair"; the two young friends dealing with more than they bargained for in "The Disappearing Boy"; or the brothers struggling with things unsaid in "Nudity", Poissant's characters are richly drawn, complex, and tremendously memorable.

The collection contains a few very short stories ("Knockout" and "The Baby Glows," among them) which I wish Poissant could have fleshed out a bit more, because I found their premise intriguing. But the other stories in this collection are tremendously satisfying. My favorites in the collection are the title story, which finds a man desperately driving from Louisiana to California to see his estranged son before he dies; the aforementioned "Nudists," "The Geometry of Despair," "The Disappearing Boy," and "The End of Aaron," and the somewhat self-explanatorily-titled "How to Help Your Husband Die." (Get your tissues for that one.)

Poissant is a writer whose talent was evident from the first few lines of the first story. Here's just one example I marveled at: "So where does she fit in? What is she to him? She is cuff links. She's a pocket watch. A thing slipped on for special occasions."

I can't say enough about this collection without going into a treatise on why I loved it so much. So read it. And let me know what you think. I can't wait to see what's next for David James Poissant.

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