Thunderstruck & Other Stories, by Elizabeth McCracken

With April declared National Poetry Month, May is now officially Short Story Month, dedicated to reading, sharing, applauding and promoting the short story. On Twitter, Knopf has launched the hashtag #shortreads with links to stories, events, appreciations and advice. Given my deep appreciation of short stories, it seemed a good month to look at some past LitStaffRecs of story collections, both new and classic. For what else but the short story can impose the mix of concision and design that renders every word part of a jigsawed, glorious whole.

Kicking off the appreciation is Elizabeth McCracken’s extraordinary story collection, Thunderstruck.  The collection. McCracken’s second, and her fifth book, received the Story Prize in 2014. In “Something Amazing,” the collection’s first story, a grieving mother instructs her seventeen year-old son to seal up the room of his dead sister. This, she imagines will somehow purge the house of the evil that caused her daughter’s lymphoma. “Don’t touch a thing. Just seal it up. He nailed over the doorway with barrier cloth, then painted over that with latex paint.” The image of the girl’s room, sealed with something as ordinary as barrier cloth and paint, is more haunting than the ghost. Why is that, I wondered, as I devoured this singular book. As it turns out, the most ordinary things can be the strangest: a rental that comes furnished with worn out, sad objects; parents who’ve failed their son and fill the house with pets; a young girl whose indulgent grandmother is the reason she’s bursting out of her Patrick Henry costume on the Fourth of July—a bad start to a life-changing summer in which her reasoned view of the world serves her better than any adult.

Thunderstruck has many unexpected moments and so many affecting images (like that sealed room). In the tradition of contemporary American writers like Tobias Wolff, Deborah Eisenberg, Alan Gurganus, Lorrie Moore, Charles Baxter, and Antonya Nelson—McCracken’s world doesn’t belong solely to her characters. It’s hers too, in the brilliant detail, wisdom, and fresh asides. And there are dozens of perfect lines—so many, I’m tempted to finish this post off with a list for your reading pleasure:

The almond soap is as cracked as an old tooth.

He’s not circumcised. He looks like an Italian sculpture from a dream, a polychrome putto from the corner of a church. The tub is rotten, pink, with a sliding glass door that looks composed of a million thumbprints.

They were both terrible with money, and they had a soft spot for animals. No, soft spot didn’t cover it. They were about animals the way some of their friends were about drink: They snuck abandoned animals into the house. They bought animals with money they didn’t have. They swore they needed no more animals in the morning and showed up with more animals in the evening

In the December rain, the buildings around the town square were the color of dirty fingernails.

On her hip, she balanced the little girl, who had a look of Victorian disapproval on her face. Even the girl’s dark hair looked annoyed and half-awake.

In the morning, they discovered that the interior walls were so thin they could hear, just behind the headboard, the noise of M. Petit emptying his bladder as clearly as if he’d been in the same room. It was a long story, the emptying of M. Petit’s bladder, with many digressions and false endings.

For me, the pleasure of the short story lies in these encapsulation of deft language and life, and in this collection such instances are everywhere. Elizabeth McCracken’s ear is especially suited for the story. Her tone is always perfect, and the humanity that runs through every story is generous and unforgettable.

Read more about Thunderstruck and the Story Prize here.

–Lauren Alwan

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