DAVID JAMES POISSANT’s debut collection of stories, The Heaven of Animals, shares its title with a deceptively jarring and dark poem by the late Southern writer James L. Dickey, one that posits just what the afterlife of the animal kingdom might look like:
For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect
[from “The Heaven of Animals” in The Whole Motion]
If you happen to have a pet and are prone to magical ideas of life after death, the poem offers the sort of conundrum you probably don’t like to think about: if all dogs do indeed go to heaven, it’s worth considering that maybe lions, tigers and bears do, too, and their idea of eternal peace might well include slow-moving house pets they can hunt for pleasure. But Dickey also poses a larger question about our interaction with the natural world and how we, as humans, battle with our animal instincts. Human convention suggests that we form nuclear families, that we mate for life, that we care for our children. Our animal nature is not so easy to manage.
These were topics Dickey spent a lifetime exploring and which Poissant spends a good deal of time on in these 15 assured stories (many of which previously have appeared in such anthologies as Best New American Voices and Best New Stories from the South). Poissant’s characters are also beset by marital discord and, if not direct loss, then the memory of loss. In its melancholic way, The Heaven of Animals might remind readers of two stylistically disparate story collections — Richard Ford’s A Multitude of Sins and Amy Hemple’s The Dog of the Marriage — which are surely not bad company to keep.
At least as displayed in this collection, Poissant could narrowly be described as being in the Southern tradition of short fiction. His characters are usually of the working class or on their way there, living in shithole towns in Florida and Georgia, or — having escaped west — now marking time in Tucson, or perhaps living among the old hippies in San Francisco. What they share, no matter their age, is a yearning for what might have been, had they only made better decisions.
Sometimes those decisions are shocking ones, like for the narrator of the book’s first story, “Lizard Man,” who throws his teen son Jack through the family room window after finding him kissing a boy. “I didn’t give Jack the chance to lie,” he says, “I admitted guilt to second-degree battery and kept everyone out of court. I got four months and served two, plus fines, plus community service. Had that been the end of it, I’d have gotten off easy. Instead, I lost my family.”
That the narrator has this realization is good, of course, but it doesn’t exactly change the opinion he has of Jack:
What can I tell you about my son? He had been a beautiful boy, and, standing before me, I saw he had become something different: a man I did not understand. His T-shirt was too tight for him, and the hem rode just above his navel. A trail of brown hair led from there and disappeared behind a silver belt buckle. His fingernails were painted black.
This turning away from acceptance marks Poissant’s characters. The narrator is sorry he threw his son through the window, sorry that he lost his family, sorry that the world has turned upside down on him, but he’s not newly emotionally enlightened about homosexuality. Rather, he realizes just what he’s capable of, what wildness lives inside of him, so that when he wants to tell his son that one day he hopes he’ll come to understand him, he can only think it, unable to show anything but the skin on his bones.
Change is hard-won in Poissant’s world; it tends to come seemingly long after it can do the characters any good, and often at unexpected moments — in this case, as the narrator wrangles a giant, old, sick, caged alligator. It’s a fool’s errand, but he does it to help his friend Cam, whose own abusive father has just died, leaving him a house and, inexplicably, a prehistoric creature to manage:
“But look at him,” I say. Cam takes in the alligator’s wide, green head, his upturned nostrils and Ping-Pong ball eyes. He looks up.
“No,” I say. “Really look.”
“What?” Cam’s impatient. He shifts his weight, gets a better grip on the gator. “I don’t know what you want me to see.”
“He’s not even fighting us. He’s too sick. Even if we set him free, how do we know he’ll make it?”
“No, we don’t. We don’t know where he came from. We don’t know where to take him. And what if Red raised him? How will he survive in the wild? How will he learn to hunt and catch fish and stuff?”
The narrator may as well be describing himself in this new world: an anachronism. The parallel hits the character squarely: it’s unfathomable why a person would keep a monster in their yard, but’s equally unfathomable why someone would choose to be a monster, too. This question haunts the collection; several of the stories ruminate on the idea that our worst choices define us, be it the narrator of “Lizard Man” or, later, the narrator of “Me and James Dean” who accidentally runs over his girlfriend’s dog, or the lost 33-year-old man who find himself in a compromising situation with a teenage girl in “Amputee.”
The appearance of the alligator portends many more appearances of animals in the following stories — including, but not limited to: a cat, a dog, bison, and a Gila monster — and in each case, the animals seem the nobler of creatures, their motives unconfused by such things as pride, upbringing, or jealousy. It’s a device we’ve seen recently in some excellent story collections — notably Megan Mayhew Bergman’s remarkable debut Birds of a Lesser Paradise — and it makes one wonder if there’s an undercurrent in our culture about our atavistic selves pushing through the layers of technology that surround us. The simile can easily shift into the territory of homily, but Poissant delivers by working the animals in juxtaposition to the characters in elegant ways. In “Last of the Great Land Mammals,” Poissant draws the most interesting comparison when Arnie and Linda, a couple involved in an adulterous relationship, meet at Big Bone Lick State Park, which is both a habitat and breeding ground for bison, an attempt to recreate the great herds that once roamed Kentucky:
The trail winds through the woods, and he’s walking fast because he can’t wait to see the bison. He’s trying to remember whether he’s seen one before, seen one anywhere besides in a book or on TV. He doesn’t think he has.
“Picture it,” he says. “These things side by side with mammoths, with saber-toothed tigers, and they’re what’s left.”
He’s decided there must be something special about the bison to have cheated history and made it out alive.
The truth, however, is the opposite: bison didn’t cheat history, they were the victims of it, man becoming such an adept hunter that they slaughtered the animal into near extinction. Big Bone Lick was created to circumvent history, to protect the animals, to promote breeding, to allow nature to exist unbridled by human interaction. Arnie doesn’t see the clear metaphor — the men in Poissant’s stories are largely the ones who miss the important signs of oncoming doom — but Linda does, since she knows how fated their relationship is, particularly since Arnie and Linda are cousins.
If she could put it into words, she’d tell him that their two-decade experiment has reached an end. He’d ask: Why now? And she’d have to shake her head, unsure, understanding only that what’s come before is gone and what she wants can’t be. The future, the past — both are impossible.
Without the mores or the intrusion of human society, they could do as they pleased, could even procreate. Eventually even their family tree would become congenitally diffuse enough that where it all started from wouldn’t matter, just like the animals they’ve come to watch.
When Poissant’s work falls a bit short and runs the risk of heavy-handedness, as in “The End of Aaron” where he forsakes animals for bees, it’s only due to foreshadowing that comes too easily: introduce an EpiPen, you have to use it. Still, the story itself is incredibly moving; Aaron is beset by apocalyptic delusions, and the insular world he shares with his girlfriend, the story’s narrator, is claustrophobic and fraught. Here is another caged animal, except he is tended to by a woman who loves his madness:
Aaron’s therapist calls him a wounded bird, but, I ask you, who wouldn’t care for a wounded bird? What kind of person sees a bird with a broken wing, cat on the horizon, and walks on by?
We might normally call this sort of relationship co-dependent, but what relationship between people isn’t in some way? The choice to remain with a person coming untethered, to be attracted to the weakest link of the herd, is a uniquely human desire that works against our base instincts to find the most evolutionary beneficial mate. And yet Poissant draws both characters in such an empathetic light, it’s hard not to recognize in them the things we all want — to be understood, to be loved, to not be alone when the end comes:
Here’s what I know: I know that, one of these times, it’s not going to be so easy. One of these days, no matter what I do, I won’t be able to get Aaron back on his meds. What I don’t know is what comes next. This is my fear, the fear of the unknown.
And, in this way, maybe Aaron and I aren’t so different — two people afraid of things beyond our control.
Poissant’s best stories tend to deal with the aftermath of conflict versus the conflict itself. In the book’s centerpiece, “The Geometry of Despair,” for instance, a couple tries to work through the death of their infant daughter, but the distance between them grows each day, stretching open old wounds. Blame, loss, and recrimination move into the places where there used to be love, “as though happiness might disrespect the dead.” The story shows a rare case in which the cliché is also overwhelmingly true, and in lesser hands the story might end up overwrought. Instead, Poissant takes it to a deeper, darker, and more violent place than one might expect, until both animals and people attack. Somehow the violence is cathartic instead of cruel, a kind of balance restored to a world turned chaotic, and the severity of emotion seems to merit such intense and primitive reactions.
But it is the title story, the last in the book, which offers Poissant’s finest writing. He picks up the father and son from “Lizard Man” more than a decade later, and the world, for both, has changed. Jack, the son, now a marine biologist in La Jolla, is dying of AIDS. Dan, the father, lives a life filled with gnawing regret. In the years since the events in “Lizard,” they’ve had only the slightest of relationships, one mostly built on Dan’s penance. He’s paid for Jack’s college tuition, has even driven him across the country after graduation; acts that any parent would reasonably be expected to do for their child, but which for Dan come cloaked in the understanding that he was always Jack’s final call for help, not his first:
His deepest grief. His greatest shame … Dan had recognized that the thing he wanted most in the world was a thing he’d never have, and so he’d given up hope for forgiveness. A friend had suggested that perhaps Dan was already forgiven. That, by taking his money, begging his father’s help, the boy had relented. Weren’t these concessions of something like love? The idea was almost as believable as it was untrue.
As his son faces his last days, Dan takes to the road to go see him, recreating their trip across the country. It’s a foolish choice, of course, when he could fly, but Dan is not a man who makes the right choices, and his understanding of consequence has long seemed fungible. What he finds along the way, in this race against a broken clock, is something like radiance, if not the enlightenment he so desperately needed. Dan’s son grows sicker every day, and thus the ending is irrelevant: either Dan will see his son one last time or he will not, but Jack will die regardless; in this case it is the journey that matters.
Poissant’s stories tend to end on epiphanies, and what is life if not a series of realizations; the end result of conflicts we’ve either beaten or — as is the case with many of Poissant’s wounded, weakened characters — which have beaten us. In that way, Poissant never takes the easy way out with his characters; not even Dan, a man who maybe deserved, at one point, some real hurt in his life. So what happens next, after conflict has come to a head, after we’re left wandering in its debris? The Heaven of Animals doesn’t posit much in the way of happiness; instead, Poissant’s damaged men and women seem to conclude that survival is enough, that this world isn’t about finding perfect joy. Survival of the fittest sometimes means destroying the ones you love, living among the wreckage, and hoping that a place of peace exists somewhere down the line, even if that place isn’t part of the corporeal world. Maybe James L. Dickey also knew, when he concluded his poem with these words:
At the cycle’s center
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree
They fall, they are torn
They rise, they walk again
The men and women in David James Poissant’s own Heaven are unlikely to find such a sure respite. For them, the other side of sorrow is not renewal, it is a beast with teeth.
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Tod Goldberg directs the Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside. His new book, Gangsterland, is forthcoming from Counterpoint this fall.