David James Poissant’s debut collection of short stories, The Heaven of Animals, is a grim, rough, occasionally brutal examination of family and love. Unlikeable characters demand attention and hold it wildly from page to page, bringing unexpected beauty to a world that is often wicked. Poissant explores antiheroes with humor and prose that brings clarity to group of characters who are lost in a mess of their own making.
The book begins with “Lizard Man” and ends with the titular story, “The Heaven of Animals.” These two pieces bookend the collection with an interlocking tale about Dan, a down-and-out father, riddled with guilt for throwing his gay son through a living room window. In “Lizard Man” Dan helps a friend say goodbye to his recently deceased father, and in “The Heaven of Animals” he visits his sick son in the moments before his son’s death. In both stories Dan takes an urgent road trip in search of reconciliation and understanding. Many of Poissant’s characters seek resolution within the complicated web of familial bonds, and these two stories frame a collection that explores this idea.
In “Refund” a father searches for a connection with his gifted son, and for understanding from his petty and grasping wife. In “Last of the Great Land Mammals” two cousins test the boundaries of forbidden love. In “The Geometry of Despair” and “How to Help Your Husband Die” a terrible loss punctuates the unfathomable depths of grief. In “Nudists” a man attempts to forgive his brother for not attending his wife’s funeral. Even the stories that aren’t specifically tied to family are nearly familial—boyfriends and girlfriends, best friends, a man reflecting on family—and they all raise questions about the brutal nature of life and love. In “The End of Aaron” a girl manages her boyfriend’s schizophrenia with naivety and kindness, and in “Me and James Dean” a relationship’s inevitable decline is exposed when the narrator accidentally runs over his girlfriend’s dog.
Poissant’s stories are filled with messy trios dealing with intimate conflicts: fathers, mothers, and children; boyfriends, girlfriends, and beagles; brothers and a sister-in-law; two friends and a parent. Using a trio is effective because it generates a natural imbalance for characters to struggle against. And while it is most effective in stories like “Refund,” when a character’s position within a group can be applied to the search for belonging in a larger sense, Poissant is largely successful with this scheme. His collection as a whole examines conflicts that end with hope and sadness in equal measure, and by defining relationships that brim with sympathy and heart, even when they are terribly ugly.
There are a lot of theatrical plot points in The Heaven of Animals, dramatic elements that help explore the familiar by pushing narratives beyond the mundane. Two men end up with an alligator in the back of their truck, a narrator encounters a peculiar and haunting girl with one arm, a schizophrenic boy rushes toward the end of the world, and a woman’s car veers off an icy cliff. These melodramatic plots add danger and urgency to a situation that forces characters into action. And it’s great fun to read. The strangeness of an alligator in the back of a truck is nothing compared to a wolf standing on hind legs drinking coffee with the narrator in “What the Wolf Wants.” Or a baby that shines like a glow stick in “The Baby Glows.” These represent two of four flash-fiction pieces in a collection that is largely composed of longer stories. I found it wonderfully refreshing to see these short, highly stylized pieces among the others. Flash fiction is often left out of anthologies—perhaps editors don’t feel they belong with their longer, more “literary” counterparts—but I found their highly imaginative quality a nice presence. Their themes don’t have the reach that longer pieces do, but they provide this collection with a showy, creative beat, offering an additional perspective on Poissant’s ability to craft intriguing worlds and characters.
The book’s greatest success echoes a trend of sympathy for antiheros. Television shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House of Cards, and The Sopranos have set a standard for dark protagonists who seek our understanding. The Heaven of Animals feels like the literary complement to this movement. Poissant’s characters straddle the gray area between affection and approval, asking us to reflect on the dark parts of ourselves, to consider compassion for the unlikeable because we can relate. The conflict for the reader is not whether our sympathy is deserved, but to what degree it has been harnessed. There are no clear happy endings in The Heaven of Animals, but there is a feeling of satisfaction regardless of a story’s outcome. By book’s end you know you’ve spent your time valuably, and in the hands of a deft and skillful writer.