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November 23, 2009

Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle

Perhaps Lydia Peelle’s stories seem a bit old fashioned because most of them are so blatantly about something. So that I finish reading one, for example “Phantom Pain”, exclaiming that the story was amazing, and when I’m asked what it was about, I can say, “A one-legged taxidermist and a mountain lion on the loose.” And then, naturally, whoever I’ve been talking to wants to read the story now.

A bit of their old-fashionedness also comes from these stories’ deep investment in history, and a focus on farming and the land. “The Mule Killers” is three generations contained in one single tale, which navigates changes in farming life (mule killers are tractors). “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” looks less far back, an elegy-that-isn’t-an-elegy to a summer two girls on the cusp of adolescence spent working on a horse farm. “Kidding Season” takes place in the present day, but recounts a troubled young man’s experiences working on a goat farm. In “Shadow On A Weary Land”, a motley collection of characters (one of whom is apparently communing with the spirit of Jesse James) search for treasure buried by James’ brother on property outside of Nashville that is rapidly being developed into subdivisions.

Peelle’s agrarian history is no idyll, however. A seminal moment in the “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” summer involves the head of a dead pony in the jaws of a dog. The ending of “Kidding Season” is so sickeningly devastating, you’ll read the final paragraph again and again, willing it to say something different. The narrator of “Shadow On A Weary Land” is an octogenarian stroke victim/former drug addict, and the yarns he spins are a product of his past.

“Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing” reminded me of Birds of America Lorrie Moore. The stories “Phantom Pain” and “The Still Point” paint the underside of the present day in stunningly vivid terms. “This is Not a Love Story” chronicles an abusive relationship, displaying a wonderful treatment of the “life as a flowing river” metaphor, when that river is a man-made lake that had flooded a town, and how there’s nothing else to do but go around and around. This story in particular undercuts any notion of the good old days: “But wasn’t it worth it?’ she said. ‘Wouldn’t you do it all over again?’/No, it wasn’t worth it, I told her. Not any of it./ Not one damn minute of it./Trust me.”

Peelle displays some self-awareness in “This is Not a Love Story”, her narrator a girl from Connecticut who in the early ’80s decides to become a photographer and “move to the South, where I had never been and which seemed so mysterious: raw and dangerous and full of relics of a long-gone era.” Peelle, a native of Boston, might have been similarly naive when she moved to the South, when she started writing about the South, but her stories show she’s since learned that the dangers are elsewhere, that the long-gone era is an illusion, and relics aren’t the things you might have chosen to last.

But writing about the South, she treads on a dangerous tradition, and thus come the comparisons of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. There are moments when it feels like she might be striving toward these voices, but on the whole I would posit that, as an outsider, Peelle comes at the South from a unique point of view, and hers are even less elegiac than these writers’ non-elegies for a long-gone era that never was and never went.

Where Peelle is like O’Connor, however, is in these moments in which she digs in her knife and twists it, and then you realize that the story you’ve been reading is darker, its people more awful, what has happened is even more tragic than you’ve ever imagined. I mentioned the end of “Kidding Season” already, and can’t get explicit or I’ll ruin it, but Peelle manages to synchronize her readers’ awareness of dawning horror with that of her protagonist in a way that is absolutely masterful. “Phantom Pain” has a similar impact. Everything is loaded.

I like this book for the lines it crosses– Peelle’s history isn’t dead and buried, but keeps coming up again year after year (and kudos for that wonderful asparagus image in “The Mule Killers”). Which is perhaps where she gets her lack of elegy from, for its hard to elegize something so close to the surface. Peelle’s stories mix urban life and farm life, they’re stories of home and of the road (and neither of these so much like the home and road you read in books). I like that if you picked up this book, and read it straight through, you’d have a hard time telling whether it was written by a woman or a man, and in that ambiguity, I think, Peelle’s writing takes on tremendous power.

This is a stunning collection that deserves to be read and celebrated, and I think the one only leads to the other.

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