Have you ever read a piece of fiction that was somehow both perfectly timely, encapsulating the zeitgeist of its moment and addressing all the little things that make a specific time and place home to the people living in it, and also timeless? Can you think of a piece of writing that exposes the throbbing heart of contemporary life while transcending it and approaching the universal? You’ll be lucky to find one such story in any given collection, but Thomas Pierce’s Hall of Small Mammals is populated almost exclusively with such paradoxical delights.
In “Felix Not Arriving,” what could have been a simple tale of a stand-up comedian grappling with his personal definition of success turns into an excavation of twenty-first century families, missed opportunities, and those moments in life when we know we’re on the verge of something important but dare not name, guess, or hope as a beginning or an end. “The Real Alan Gass” fits neatly into a world where people can speculate upon the very fabric of the universe (multiverse?) in one moment, obsess over dream worlds in the next, and be consumed by a petty quest in the next. “More Soon” exemplifies this book’s humor, which isn’t outright comedy but will nonetheless get you crazy looks if you read it on the bus–a dead body that has become a biochemical weapon, our false confidence in GPS technology, the tenuousness of sibling relationships, and international bureaucracy all give little laughs throughout the story, but as it builds to a punchline, you become increasingly unsure whether you want to laugh or cry. A chain of frozen yogurt franchises unifies the stories, and Pierce offers oblique commentary on dog training, reality television, environmental issues, the limits of the medical arts, and scouting organizations.
Best of all, and best demonstrating this timeless timeliness, is “Videos of People Falling Down.” It is a masterpiece. It is a once in a lifetime story. It is the story I re-read as soon as I finished it, then re-read again later. It asks so many questions! What is it like to be the unwitting subject of a viral video? What happens to these people later, once their nanosecond of fame is over and they’ve been forgotten? Underlying all this are the questions pundits love repeating. What sense of connection do we really feel to faces on a screen? Are all these screens stealing our humanity? While Pierce’s stories often leave things open-ended, letting readers draw their own conclusions, or have two different characters suggest opposing answers, this last one gets a resounding no. It is the empathy and humanity suffusing the story that shows we will never eliminate passion from the human condition, separate love from tragedy, or keep unexpected beauty from permeating the small corners of life so long as we still live in the flesh. When my grandchild sidles up to me in however many years and asks me what it was like to live way back in 2015, this story will be my answer.
It hardly suffices to say I recommend this book to any fan of Donald Barthelme. This is also a good companion piece for any George Saunders collection. Pierce doesn’t need those comparisons, though–his work stands on its own. If, however, you hear somebody bemoan that there’s nobody else out there writing like those men, push this book into that person’s hand.
Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce (Riverhead Books | 9781594632525 | January 8, 2015)