Lydia Peelle’s stories focus on scurrilous ne’er-do-wells who flail about in circumstances beyond their control.
It will be a shame if Lydia Peelle, whose first short story collection includes an O. Henry Award winner and two Pushcart Prize winners, gets pigeonholed as an “environmental” writer. Peelle is an impressive prose stylist who focuses on human beings as members of communities, and the stories in Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing show how impoverished our collective life becomes when greed, neglect, and carelessness characterize human behavior.
Peelle doles out words as if they were scarce commodities, producing elliptical tales in which the occasional metaphor lights up an entire landscape. The opening story, “Mule Killers,” nicely demonstrates her method. While many possible meanings of the title come to the reader’s mind, Peelle mentions only one: tractors. An unnamed narrator recounts (in the present tense) his father’s experience of the long-ago summer when he was eighteen and tractors replaced mules on the farms of Tennessee. Among the mules trucked away to the slaughterhouse is his favorite, Orphan Lad. The young man is both saddened by and resigned to Orphan Lad’s departure. “The mules’ job, it was finished.” Similarly, he comes to accept the necessity of giving up the girl he loves, though the reader can’t be sure whether he ever recovers from this disappointment. When he sees his father cry, “he feels like he has pulled the rug of manhood out from under the old man’s feet,” and he tries to convince himself that his father’s tears are for Orphan Lad. Only years later, when retelling the story, will he admit that his father was crying for him, and for the life he’d condemned himself to lead.
All but one of these eight stories is set in the rural South. Peelle has a nice feeling for the lives of middle-to-lower class whites, such as the gruff, one-legged taxidermist who narrates “Phantom Pain;” Lucy, who in “Kidding Season” tries to make a go of a goat farm; Charlie, the New Orleans-bound petty thief who finds a temporary home in Lucy’s barn; and the motley trio of misfits who dig for buried treasure in “Shadow on a Weary Land.” Fine as Peelle’s dialog is, it’s often the small gesture that proves most revealing of character, as when the taxidermist “gives the clock a good long look” while one of the town’s big talkers yammers on about a rumored panther.
Peelle’s animals, from the aforementioned Orphan Lad to a billy goat chained to a tire that he uses both as a ladder and a bed, to a mutt who becomes a drunkard’s hapless companion, have a ton of personality. Even the shell of a turtle has the potential to shape and change human beings for the better; however, Peelle draws a distinction between love for animals and sentimentality, a weakness she condemns as an especially cruel form of neglect. In “Kidding Season,” death is a mercy denied by the weak Charlie to a goat born with malformed legs. In “Sweethearts of the Rodeo,” the most poignant and entertaining of these stories, wealthy ladies who leave their horses uncomfortably—and unsafely—tied in an aisle while they disappear with a hunky stable hand seem all the more despicable when they scream over a dead bird. The splendid heroines of “Sweethearts” are two young girls who savor their “last summer, the last one before boys,” on the backs of borrowed ponies. “We weren’t frightened of death,” says the narrator, a defiant battle cry that in some ways defines the collection.
Peelle loses me only when she becomes overtly elegiac—those times I hear the violins whining plaintively in the background. Others may find some stories a tad too quiet. But her genius is to make scurrilous ne’er-do-wells into likeable, sympathetic characters; her people tend to flail about, trapped in circumstances beyond their control. Inconclusive endings serve to heighten the sense that human error, including such phenomena as climate change and the loss of wild places, can spell doom for the lives Peelle chronicles. Hers is not a hopeful vision, but for those readers willing to dip into their chill waters, these bracing stories provide rich rewards.