Hall of Small Mammals: Stories
The characters in Thomas Pierce’s Hall of Small Mammals are bone collectors, particle physicists, hot air balloonists, TV show hosts, comedians, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, believers and apostates, and would-be initiates of a cultish scouting society called the Grasshoppers. Across a dozen short stories, their concerns orbit a resurrected clone of a long-extinct dwarf woolly mammoth species, a visit to the zoo to witness a rare monkey species, an unidentifiable infectious disease, and a theoretical subatomic particle called the daisy, amongst other things. Their worlds are recognizable yet strange, imaginariums of the possible that feel like extensions of the probable, existing in “a universe a few inches to the left of this one, perhaps,” as Pierce himself has said.
And yet, they are all familiar, in that sense that all humans essentially desire the same things—safety, purpose, a sense of belonging. Pierce is a classicist in fabulist’s clothing: He constructs fantastical conceits and intricate plots, and then places in them quotidian characters with profoundly human problems. The result is a collection of stories that are as wondrous and dazzling as the most imaginative fiction being published today, and as wrenchingly emotional as it sometimes is to just be alive.
In the opening story, “Shirley Temple Three,” a prodigal son named Tommy brings home a waist-high, heretofore extinct Bread Island Dwarf Mammoth home to his mother. Tommy is the host of Back From Extinction, a popular TV show that reanimates extinct creatures for popular entertainment. Shirley Temple Three is the mammoth, and she’s an “accidental” clone—an extra who will be euthanized if Tommy doesn’t sequester her. And Mawmaw is Tommy’s mother, a lonely, God-fearing woman who smokes menthols, takes a pill so she can sleep, and who suspects her son’s show is the work of the Devil, but loves him too much to talk to him about it.
Tommy leaves the mammoth with Mawmaw and then splits; his return is promised, but uncertain. Meanwhile, Mawmaw cares for the prehistoric beast in her laundry room, while attempting to reconcile his existencewith her understanding of God’s works here on Earth. The mammoth elicits Mawmaw’s lapsed matronly instincts, becoming a stand-in for her lost son—two creatures who need to be brought in from the cold.
The tension between faith and science—one type of understanding and another—is a seam stitching these stories together. “This is a terrible thought,” Mawmaw thinks. “What if today is still God’s seventh day and He hasn’t woken up yet from his rest? That would explain why He’s been so quiet lately. What if, when He wakes up on the eighth morning, He decides He doesn’t like what we’ve been up to down here? Maybe He’ll be grumpy with us and stamp out all the lights again, return the world to darkness.”
Elsewhere in Hall of Small Mammals, Pierce utilizes lightly sci-fi concepts in order to explore human pitfalls and anxieties. “The Real Alan Gass” is the story of a physicist named Claire who’s researching the mysterious daisy particle, an unobservable particle “forever locked in a curious state between existence and nonexistence, sliding back and forth between the two.” Claire, too, seems to exist in a state of quantum uncertainty—by day, she’s happily married to a man named Walker, but at night, she has vivid, recurring dreams in which she’s married to another man entirely, the titular Alan Gass. Walker can’t help but compare himself to Alan Gass, despite Claire’s reassurances, and his attempts to solve this dilemma are absurd and moving.
The strongest story in the collection is “Videos Of People Falling Down,” in which Pierce imagines the lives of people whose falls comprise an America’s Funniest Videos-style supercut of embarrassment. This, too, is an occasion for empathy: Everybody falls. “Falling down has never been the same,” Pierce writes. “Now we can watch the same fall a hundred times. We can laugh at it. We can study it. We can slow it down. We can speed it up. We can linger on a single frame. We can see the birth of fear and panic in a human face. We can identify the moment when a person suddenly realizes that he is no longer in control of what happens next. But the simple truth is that we are never in control of what happens next.”
Hall of Small Mammals is a stunning debut for Pierce, a Charlottesville, VA-based writer whose stories have previously appeared in The New Yorker, The Oxford American, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, amongst other places. They are radiantly imaginative, brilliant and unexpected, wry and moving and funny.