Thunderstruck & Other Stories, by Elizabeth McCracken
Early on in Elizabeth McCracken’s extraordinary story collection, Thunderstruck, 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 little girl’s room, sealed with something as ordinary as barrier cloth and paint, is more haunting than the ghost in “Something Amazing,” the collection’s first story. 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 other people’s 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, yet whose reasoned view of the world is sure to see her through what will prove to be a life-changing summer.
This collection. McCracken’s second, and her fifth book, has so many unexpected moments, so many affecting images like that sealed room, and so many perfect lines, I’m tempted to finish this post off with a simple list for your reading pleasure. In the tradition of contemporary American story writers like Tobias Wolff, Deborah Eisenberg, Alan Gurganus, Lorrie Moore, Charles Baxter, and Antonya Nelson—McCracken’s world doesn’t belong solely to her character’s. It’s hers too, in the brilliant detail, the unexpected asides, the fresh, untrod territory of detail, setting, and characters. Oh, why fight it, here’s my list:
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 lovely instances of deft language and life, and in this collection such instances are everywhere. Elizabeth McCracken’s ear seems especially suited for the short form, in her tone that is always perfect, and in the thrilling, immense history that runs through every story
Thunderstruck & Other Stories recently won the Story Prize. Read more here.