04/29/2014 09:07 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

The Book We're Talking About: 'Thunderstruck & Other Stories' By Elizabeth McCracken

The Dial Press

Thunderstruck & Other Stories
by Elizabeth McCracken
The Dial Press, $26.00
Publishes April 22, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think
Elizabeth McCracken was the commencement speaker at my college graduation. She didn't give us frank, hard-knocks advice about our quickly approaching transition into the so-called real world, nor did she dish out warnings or optimistic catchphrases. Instead, she read a short story she'd written about a baby who was raised in a library. Bizarre, I heard a few parents grumble, but we English majors were pleased.

McCracken was a public librarian before she began teaching creative writing. The experience informs "Juliet," a short story published in her latest collection. The title refers to a nickname a crew of librarians gives to a woman who seeks refuge among the stacks before mysteriously disappearing. The library, for McCracken, doesn't resemble Borges's mysterious labyrinths, but a domain of forgiveness, as illustrated in Grace Paley's "Wants": "I gave the librarian a check for $32. Immediately she trusted me, put my past behind her, wiped the record clean, which is just what most other municipal and/or state bureaucracies will not do." Like Paley's protagonist, McCracken's unnamed narrator recognizes the extent of a public library's support system. Of a family that moves to a neighboring town after a tragic event, she writes: "We can look their cards up on the computer if we want to, we can renew their books and erase their fines and wonder if they ever think about us."

But don’t be mistaken: McCracken’s writing isn’t dogmatic. If her stories have morals, they’re subtle. Her crestfallen characters don’t cope by grasping at meaning. Instead, they make jokes. In “Juliet,” the librarians use humor to cope with anxiety, and the narrator states, “We didn’t believe our jokes. But we needed them.” This mindset is reflected in a number of McCracken’s most powerful stories, including “Property,” which follows a man who must settle into a more permanent living situation after his freewheeling wife dies suddenly. Of his shabby new residence, McCracken writes, “The ad should have read: For rent, six-room hovel. Filled Mrs. Butterworth bottle in living room, sandy sheets throughout, lingering smell.”

Laughter’s role shifts from story to story. In “Some Terpsichore,” perhaps the most tender and most peculiar story in the collection, a girl falls in love with a saw-playing folk musician after he compliments her objectively terrible singing voice. The pair begins to play shows, and their relationship becomes tumultuous before ending. Of the breakup, the protagonist observes, “I knew something was ending, and I was grateful, and I missed it.” After giving such a complexly sad sentiment space to set in, McCracken offsets the weighty truth of it with her token, sometimes off-kilter humor. Years after the couple, and subsequently the band, splits up, a longtime fan approaches the protagonist to ask if she knew audiences were laughing at her strange performances. Yes, she was aware, but she continued anyway, because some of the crowd members seemed to find a sort of truth in the quirky displays.

What other reviewers think
Los Angeles Times: "Haunted people wander through cul-de-sacs reeling from small-scale catastrophes or pace through Parisienne arrondissements wishing for different lives in Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck and Other Stories. Her second fiction story collection is a stunningly beautiful rumination on loss."

The Dallas Morning News: "Calamity strikes in these stories. Grief envelops. McCracken exquisitely tracks each character’s way of bearing up. Expect McCracken quirkiness, of course."

Who wrote it?
Elizabeth McCracken is the author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry. She won the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award in 2002 for her collection, Niagra Falls All Over Again. She's a graduate of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and is the James Michener Chair of Fiction at the University of Texas at Austin.

Who will read it?
Fans of short story collections, those not averse to the macabre, and lovers of dark humor.

Opening lines:
"Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees."

Notable passage:
"The children's librarian was inconsolable. Her mind wandered, her story-times made no sense; she forgot the words to 'The Wheels on the Bus.' She also forgot to feed the rabbit, who died a week later. The cage had to be covered with cloth so the children wouldn't peep in. The rabbit lay in state all morning, till someone from the DPW come come and haul it away.

"'You know,' said the children's librarian to the head of cataloging that day, 'she told me, "I've had a good life. If I died tomorrow, I'd have no regrets."' The head of cataloging stared, thinking, That rabbit said no such thing."

Rating, out of ten:
8 - McCracken's stories are fresh, peculiar and always entertaining, if sometimes gratuitously dark.