‘Thunderstruck & Other Stories’, by Elizabeth McCracken

An optimistic view of human nature runs through stories about life’s tragic setbacks

Thunderstruck & Other Stories, by Elizabeth McCracken, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99/The Dial Press, RRP$26, 240 pages

Thunderstruck, Elizabeth McCracken’s second fine book of short stories, is funny and sharp and smart – but also grimly marked by disappearances, and by death.

“I’m not going to die,” three-year-old Jane says to her five-year-old brother Desi at the opening of McCracken’s story “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey”. Desi begs to differ. “You will, Jane,” her brother tells her. “Nothing lasts forever.” Jane is frightened, and weeps, and her mother tries to console her. “Nobody’s dying,” she says, in the way of mothers everywhere.

Then McCracken moves her story bluntly away from comfort. “But somebody was dying,” the narrator tells us, “downstairs in the den that overlooked the woods behind the town house.” The dying man is Peter Elroy, an economist with pancreatic cancer. His wife Myra has brought him to stay with Ian Casey, the children’s father, an old friend and an acclaimed film-maker who made his name years ago from a scathing documentary – about Peter Elroy. Now is the time to make amends, Myra tells him. Peter is not so sure. But Myra leaves him at Ian’s house and disappears. And Ian, Peter’s old friend, is away when Peter arrives – and does not return.

American author McCracken’s first novel, The Giant’s House, was published in 1996 to near-universal acclaim; it remains one of the freshest and most endearing debuts I’ve read. It is the tale of Peggy Cort, a Cape Cod librarian, and her friendship with an 11-year-old boy who is destined to become the world’s tallest man – and who is, therefore, doomed. Such a tale could be fey or whimsical: The Giant’s House is neither, and if you are an admirer of writers such as Ann Patchett, then you need this book on your shelf. The same year it was published, McCracken was listed as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. Niagara Falls All Over Again was published in 2001; it gave us Carter and Sharp, two Vaudeville comedians, their stories and their shtick. Then, in 2008, came An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, an extraordinary memoir about the birth of her stillborn son – and the healthy brother who followed. Like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), or Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life (2007), McCracken’s memoir puts words in a place where there is usually only an awful silence; it is a startling, necessary book.

It is hard not to hear its echo in the nine stories that make up Thunderstruck. Characters vanish, or are mysteriously absent. “Once upon a time a woman disappeared from a dead-end street,” begins “The Lost and Found Department of Greater Boston”. Karen Blackbird walks away from her life, from her elderly father, and from her teenage son, walks off into nowhere for a reason never discovered. A page in, this fairytale beginning is undercut: “In this case and no other, Once upon a time means Late summer, 1982.”

One of the distinguishing features of McCracken’s work is her ability to make her present-day worlds absolutely specific (“frozen French-bread pizzas”, “a cigarette-burned oilcloth”, “the smell of little-kid sweat”) and yet infused, just occasionally, with a hovering sense of myth. Most stories that begin “once upon a time” contain children who wander off into dangerous forests, girls with wicked stepmothers, people, in other words, who find themselves in peril generally for no good reason other than that they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. So it is in life: and that’s why we still read fairy stories, because they are fundamentally true. “Once upon a time, before I knew anything about the subject, a woman told me that I should write a book about the lighter side of losing a child,” runs the arresting first sentence of An Exact Replica – once upon a time is any time, it is all the time there is.

The characters in Thunderstruck are dealt bad hands; and yet, underlying all these stories is an optimism about human nature that manages never to be cloying – and, as in the stories of Lorrie Moore, a vein of dark humour runs alongside everything. In “Something Amazing”, a woman whose daughter dies of lymphoma is haunted by the loss. In fairytale style, the neighbourhood kids call her The Winter Terrace Witch. McCracken expands the sense of her loss to encompass all of us, and yet keeps her details unbearably precise. “The dead live on in the homeliest of ways. They’re listed in the phone book. They get mail. Their wigs rest on styrofoam heads at the back of closets. Their beds are made. Their shoes are everywhere,” she writes. And yet the end of this story brings this mother a strange, unexpected consolation; like that found at the end of the title story, too, in which a girl’s father finds what can only be called hope in the simple business of living.

Thunderstruck is what we all are, by life and what it brings us: the good and the bad, the love and the suffering. That is the strength and surprise of these wonderful, moving tales.

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