shining the spotlight on short story collections
Walk Back From Monkey School
Kate Hill Cantrill
Press 53, 2012
Kate Hill Cantrill lives in Brooklyn and curates the Rabbit Tales reading and performance series. Her writing has appeared in numerous literary publications and this is her debut collection of short fiction. She writes short, tiny fictions as sharp as shards of mirrored glass, wrought in intense, rhythmic prose, reflecting fragmented memories.
Such a curious smell in the air tonight: part skunk, part fire, part rubber of your tire, pulled liquid hot across that road.
The titles of Kate Hill Cantrill’s stories sometimes read like poems – The Hills in Pittsburgh Are So Steep They Sometimes Turn to Stairs or Dear England, Please Send Me a Redheaded Boy. The stories are full of strong, first person narrators and her writing is always lyrical; in places it’s the lyricism of rap and in others it’s that of romantic poetry.
Her story In the Hollow of the Hands includes an extraordinary cast of characters within its three brief pages: ‘the man who eats pigeons lives just across the street,’ the nasty albino boy who whispers ‘Gothic pussy, three floors below my window and it will creep up the brick and into my room,’ a man called 14K who is ‘big and not-friendly and he knows the way to hold a gun without looking like a poser.’ This adept handling of misfits, strange-lings and losers reminds me of the writing of Carson McCullers. While still retaining an empathy for the characters, Cantrill creates a portrait of a community as much as of any individual within it.
The shortest stories in this collection are less than a page long. They capture moments and emotions rather than plot and incidents. In Baking Red Delicious, Stefan is an old man who has ‘enough naked fruit to bake pies for a lifetime!’ and his morning of apple peeling and coring is both joyously transformational, yet also suffused with sadness by the ‘short life of the knurled, pulpy bodies in the bowl’ that are destined to move on ‘to the next world, the world that is lovely, the one of sweet pies.’
There are a number of elliptical stories that focus on childhood. The title story, Walk Back from Monkey School, is one, a fleeting recollection which is utterly personal and cryptic, aching with nostalgia, regret and a terrible sense of loss. Even though I did find a way to interpret the relationships described in the story I can’t be sure that I’ve decoded them as the narrator intended, but the emotions evoked are clear and bright.
Not all of the stories in this collection are flash fictions. The story Janey at the Door does a fine job of using its broader canvas to paint a picture of anxiety and neurosis growing between pairs of neighbours. It offers some small wry laughs at the craziness of the characters’ situations while still retaining a warm affection for their humanity. Underlying it all is a sense that mental unbalance is something that can transfer like an infection from one person to another.
A particular pleasure to be found in these stories is when characters sit on the spectrum of ‘normal’ (whatever that might be) but then push things a little bit further, so that you never can tell how far they might eventually go. In another of the longer stories, Not At All Concerned, the wife of a man who has moved out of their house to live in the carport describes it like this:
‘Never know what is going to turn into a gusher,’ she said, louder than she had been speaking before. ‘Sometimes something starts off as a trickle and then it goes and turns into a gusher. Sometimes things get carried away on themselves and start to pour like rain. Sometimes something little gets going and then it grows and turns into a geyser – shooting out like there’s no tomorrow! Spouting out like there is no other choice but to be what it has gotten itself all worked up to be: a wet, gushing, streaming bleed with no chance in the world of stopping it!…. “Am I making sense?” she shouted. “Am I speaking sanely? Does everybody know what the heck I’m talking about?”’
It makes a lot of sense to me. The best thing to do with Kate Hill Cantrill’s fictions is to let them flow and flow and be whatever they have gotten themselves all worked up to be.
Pauline Masurel www.unfurling.net
Pauline Masurel lives in the South West of England where she grows vegetables. Sometimes she also writes and performs her own short fictions.
Read some of Kate Hill Cantrill’s stories: