I’ve been searching for Lydia Peelle on the internet. Unfortunately, when I met her at Bryant Park the other week, I hadn’t yet bought Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing and so wasn’t able to fully express my gratitude to her for having written it. At that point, too, I only knew I’d read one of her stories before, the title one, in One Story. After I brought home her gorgeously printed paperback and delved into the eight stories within, I realized I’d actually read three of them in various “Best of” anthologies. While I didn’t remember Ms. Peelle’s name, I certainly remembered the stories. So, although I doubt it, since she’s not on Facebook and doesn’t seem to have her own website, I hope Ms. Peelle is the type to relentlessly google herself, because, since I can’t write her a fan letter, she can take this post as one.
The collection kicks off with the excellent “Mule Killers,” in which a girl is described as having “onion-pale hair,” a phrase that, I kid you not, has stayed vividly in my head since I first read it in 2006. Ms. Peelle read the opening paragraph of this story in Bryant Park and I think it sold her a great many books.
My favorite story in the collection is not one that I’d read before. It appears second in the book and is entitled “Phantom Pain.” An animal haunts a town–a panther? a mountain lion?–never quite seen, yet felt, eventually, by everyone. The story’s skeptical narrator, a taxidermist, has recently lost a leg to diabetes and is tended to by his ex-wife, who longs to see the mystery animal. Moments of tenderness pass between them that are indescribable in any words but Ms. Peelle’s own, but suffice to say that, in this author’s hands, a moment in which the ex-wife bends to cut the toenails on the narrator’s good foot and he has a fleeting expectation of her mouth in his lap, literally brought me to tears. To say nothing about the ending of the story, which somehow provides closure yet leaves the reader in a moment of terrifying, near-unbearable suspense.
Or, maybe my favorite story is one called “Sweethearts of the Rodeo.” It concerns two girls during “the last summer, the last one before boys,” who do the dirty-work at a horse stable, spending their days riding ponies and spying on Curt, who beds all the fancy ladies who come to ride horses. At the end of the story, I felt a nostalgia stronger for these girls’ childhoods than for my own.
“Kidding Season,” while not challenging the aforementioned stories for my deepest affections, is another story in which animals play a magnetic, heart-rending role. A boy escapes unpleasant family circumstances, comes to a goat farm, saves a lame baby goat from euthanasia, determined to nurse it to health. In the end of the story, the boy is in better circumstances than those in which he started, for sure. Ms. Peelle does this amazing thing, though, where she almost lets the reader be happy with the outcome, but then she slips in this moment, this tiny sentence, and the whole world turns colors.
At Bryant Park, Ms. Peelle said someone once told her that it’s important to put down a story collection after each story, to resist the urge to read them all at once. I tried with her collection–I really did–but I didn’t always manage that pause. To rectify my impatience, though, to savor it in the right way, I plan to keep it on my desk and re-read, re-read, re-read.