by Lucia Perillo (W.W. Norton)
Sometimes it seems like all literary fiction is about the same people: middle-class depressives, suburban adulterers — the kind of people who write literary fiction, actually. And don’t get me wrong, I love to read stories like this, when they’re good.
But it was incredibly refreshing to meet the people who populate Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain, a first collection of short stories by veteran poet Lucia Perillo. These folks don’t live in the suburbs or in cities; they seem to be rattling around in the middle of nowhere, though upon closer inspection they’re actually in the Pacific Northwest, not the middle of anything but right on the edge of an especially rugged ocean. They live near marinas and forests of firs, in mobile homes or, as one character describes her remote family home – which is situated between a Christmas tree lot and a junk yard — “the gulag.”
It’s the people themselves who are middle of nowhere — stuck between jobs, recently out of rehab, or bumping from one bad boyfriend to the next. (They may well be depressed, but they don’t have the time or inclination to diagnose it.) Substance abuse is a theme, as is a general loserishness, to use Perillo’s term, which she applies to her people with a kind of perverse joyfulness. “How outpatient at Saint Jude’s worked,” the personable narrator of “Saint Jude in Persia” tells us, “was that we went around the room delivering our bulletins from Loserville, the plots of which were all fundamentally the same…”
But darned if this book is more cheerful than anything else. It’s very funny and often beautiful, though not in the corny way of fiction that glorifies bad behavior or romanticizes hardship. It’s deeper than that, in the way that earned wisdom always is. Perillo isn’t slumming it, but telling us stories about people she knows and likes.
The unnamed narrator of “Bad Boy Number Seventeen,” which starts the book off with a bang, is probably the strongest and most memorable of the collection. (That’s why it’s a treat to read on and discover that two other stories feature the same characters.) A veteran of many failed romances, the woman hangs out with her sister Louisa, who has Down syndrome and is easily pleased by a trip to the movies and the local dive for a “happy beer.” In the bar, they bump into a guy the narrator met earlier at work, and we’re not surprised when she goes home with him that night. But actually, it’s a whole truckload of folks that end up back at the trailer: she and the guy and her sister and the guy’s big dog, who he was supposed to have put down that day because his wife is allergic but who he gives to Louisa instead. The gift reminds us that there’s a lasting (if messy) beauty in the way we collide with each other, however briefly.
The story “Ashes” has a similar whimsy: It starts in a library, winds its way to a strip club, and ends up in a primordial pine forest in the dead of night. Though it deals with the recent death of a man’s elderly father, the whole thing feels like a farce until the very end, where Perillo sets us down softly with a line that reads almost like prayer.
Some of the stories are tougher, sadder. “Big Dot Day” shows us an unhappy family outing through the eyes of the woman’s young son, a droll innocent who may as well be Ray Carver himself. The boy’s mother has taken up with the latest in a long string of silly men, and the three of them have hit the road in search of a better life. But their couplehood is squalid and sad, and we feel worried for the kid, who isn’t in the forefront of the adults’ minds as they drink and disappear, giggling, into the steamy motel bathroom. For all their supposed carefree living it’s the boy who does something wild and weird, bringing the only bit of color to an otherwise bleak situation.
Speaking of that master of the short story, Carver’s influence can be felt here, but not in an obvious, writerly way; the witty, chatty personality inhabiting Perillo’s stories is only her own. Better to think of it this way: Her characters seem to inhabit the same world his did, and you wouldn’t be surprised if they bumped into each other. Perillo, whose poetry collection, Inseminating the Elephant, was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2010, brings to these stories the poet’s gift for creating images in the mind, so apt they’re surprising, even funny. “In her sweater and pearls,” one woman tells us of another, “she could be Lassie’s mom.” And of their cocktails: “An olive floats like a tiny zeppelin between the ice.”