THUNDERSTRUCK AND OTHER STORIES, by Elizabeth McCracken. The Dial Press, 223 pp., $26.
The stories in Elizabeth McCracken's latest collection land as swift and true as a prizefighter's blows and often feel just as powerful, emotionally speaking. "Thunderstruck" -- how apt the title is.
McCracken ("The Giant's House," "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination") knows the men, women and children in her stories. They're poised on the edge of revelation, their pasts haunting the present much the way the ghost of dead Missy Goodby sneaks around the edges of the absolutely perfect first story, "Something Amazing": "That thumping noise is Missy bopping a plastic Halloween pumpkin on one knee; that flash of light in the corner of a dark porch is the moon off the glasses she wore to correct her lazy eye. Late at night when you walk your dog and feel suddenly cold, and then unsure of yourself, and then loathed by the world, that's Missy Goodby, too, hissing as she had when she was alive and six years old, I hate you, you stink, you smell, you baby." Missy's spirit nestles near her grieving mother, who can't let go, though the neighborhood kids who remember Missy don't miss her much at all ("She bit when she was angry and pinched no matter what").
Other, less literal hauntings wreak havoc here: the father trying to appease the grown, unreliable son who can yank away his home in "The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs"; the grocery store manager who believes he saved a boy's life in "The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston"; and the dying title character in "Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey," who has always believed the film about him was character assassination. With compassion and without sentimentality, McCracken brings home the truth to them all.
Nowhere is reality more obscured than in the title story, in which worried parents take their daughters to Paris for a month, fearing the older girl's precocious behavior. But dangers lurk everywhere, and a tragedy occurs. ("This was why you had two children. This is why you didn't.") The mother understands the situation immediately; the father sees things differently. "He looked at his wife, whom he loved, whom he looked forward to convincing, and felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness. It was a circus act, a perilous one. Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip."
The beauty of McCracken's stories is that although she's unsparing, she believes clearing that lip is possible. Sometimes, small joys arise amid the chaos. Isn't that a wonder?