In her stupefying debut, Lydia Peelle takes some of the most resonant and risky material for any fiction writer (love, death, memory, religious sentiment, denial) and absolutely masters the execution. In a tone and style reminiscent of Peter Taylor and perhaps Carol Bly, Peelle’s book is among the strongest fiction to be published this year (and this in a year that’s seen new books by Thomas Pynchon, Dan Chaon and Lorrie Moore).
The first of these eight stories, “Mule Killers,” presents a narrator lamenting the modernization of her grandfather’s farm. It’s a simple enough elegy, but what makes the story profound is not its subject matter, but rather the brilliance that led Peelle to address obsolescence in both her main narrative and her framing narrative. The narrator’s solemnity and empathy are directly related to the mules who, upon being replaced by tractors, are sent en masse to the slaughterhouse. Throughout the story, though, the reader is aware that the narrator was not alive to witness the transition from animal to mechanized labor, and is re-telling the story of the mules as her father has repeatedly told it to her. The deeper and obfuscated concerns of the narrator become apparent only near the end of the story when Peelle writes, “This is the story my father tells me as he bends like a wire wicket in the garden […] Nothing has grown here since my mother died and no one wanted to tend it.” The sorrow here is compounded generationally and is ubiquitous.
In a similar fashion, stories like “The Still Point” and “Shadow on a Weary Land” present narrators with whom we empathize not because they are confessional, but because they can’t—despite their best efforts—help but betray their longings. Few things are as attractive as a character with a secret or two, and nearly nothing inspires solicitude like a person who’s looking for something more but can’t explain what that something might be. Peelle’s stories will have longevity because they resist flashy, overcooked narratives and instead rely on the strength of their deft construction: subtly moving narratives, jaw-dropping sentences, and characters you can’t bear to see fail.