The Austin Chronicle

Far Away, From Home

Elizabeth McCracken's stories examine the humanity of the mildly freakish and unspoken freakishness of daily life

Reviewed by Amy Gentry, May 16, 2014, Arts

Thunderstruck & Other Stories

by Elizabeth McCracken
The Dial Press, 240pp., $26

The stories in Elizabeth McCracken's second collection, Thunderstruck, show an author still preoccupied by the humanity of the mildly freakish – a woman with a voice that sounds exactly like a musical saw, a bitter children's librarian – as well as with the unspoken freakishness of everyday life. McCracken's stories are eminently readable, more Carson McCullers than Flannery O'Connor, but with an off-kilter humor that makes for strange intimacies in the prose.

Like a tabloid chronicling celebrity grocery runs, McCracken is interested in the ordinariness of oddball existence: The siblings of murderers still go to the library, the subjects of sideshow documentaries get cancer, novelty musicians struggle in a cycle of domestic abuse. When the saw-voiced woman of "Some Terpsichore" says, "It was not nice love, it was not good love, but you cannot tell me that it was not love," it's a sentiment not limited to a woman with "the voice of a beautiful toothache" in love with a man whose hair looks "like it had been combed with a piece of buttered toast."

Still, some of the finest stories here invert this formula or muddy it by showing average people in extraordinary circumstances, many of which they've chosen themselves, then lost all control over. The lovely and strange "House of Two Three-Legged Dogs" explores a subculture of British expats in crumbling French villas, swilling their lives away in a seemingly benign romantic alcoholism while ignoring the gray bedrock of ordinary familial strife. In the devastating title story, a family vacation to Paris intended to heal garden-variety domestic tensions winds up calling into question not just the integrity of the nuclear family but the possibility of human connection itself. Thunderstruck, indeed.

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