Stories in linked collections are often connected by place, characters, or a family unit. In the case of Micah Perks’s rich, funny, and profound True Love and Other Dreams of Miraculous Escape, all three are at play. Perks is the author of a memoir, Pagan Time, about growing up on a commune in the Adirondack wilderness, as well as the novels What Becomes Us and We Are Gathered Here. Here she turns her attention to love in some of its many variations: the pursuit of romantic love, the sorrows of unrequited love, the fallout when characters fall out of love, parental and filial love, love between siblings, love from continents away, and love from across the street.
In a linked collection, we delight in discovering connections among the characters while being freed from having to keep exact track of everybody. Perks employs a pleasing baton-passing structure, with a minor character in one story reappearing as a major character in another—or even as the putative writer of the story itself. Reading these stories is like entering and exiting the rooms of a rambling house in a dream, where you wander around looking for the right door only to discover that all the doors lead somewhere interesting.
The book begins with “King of Chains,” told from the perspective of Albert Tannenbaum, a reporter who interviews Houdini in 1915. The remaining stories focus on Albert’s adult grandchildren, Isaac and Sadie, and their partners, ex-partners, children, friends, and neighbors. To describe just one thread: Sadie runs Bierce Park Books, where local writer Dave Tanaka’s book Miraculous Escapes is featured. Two of “his” stories appear in the collection, and he is a recurring minor character in other stories. Tanaka’s sister also teaches karate to Isaac’s daughter—and later becomes entangled more significantly in Isaac’s family. And so on. It’s a satisfying and complex web.
Because love is our subject, the characters frequently tangle with the question that Isaac asks his chef-wife, Diane, in the stand-out story “We Are the Same People”: “So, now you want excitement? I thought you wanted security.” A few stories later Diane reminds herself, “It’s her choice… she can be happy if she chooses, but her heart won’t stop.” Indeed, the heart won’t stop. The heart, sometimes recklessly, sometimes poignantly, sometimes patiently waiting a decade or more to be reunited with its one true love, continues to feel and feel and feel. Naturally, trouble ensues. And no matter which path the characters choose, the process is transformative. Diane thinks,
…there was the wife part and the mother part, they fit together, more or less, two symmetrical halves, the double arms, the two legs, etcetera, she pretty much had it all in working order. Until this other part emerged, this burning tail.
In the hands of Micah Perks, such metaphors can also operate on the literal level. There’s plenty of magic here: the fairytale magic of a barleycorn root, which, once potted and fed, behaves like a human baby, with all its attendant wants and needs; the magic realism of a spirit who comes to the aid of his living siblings; the psilocybin magic supplied by an “international hippie type with an accordion around his neck”; or the kitsune magic of a shapeshifting sensei. A speculative strain seems a requisite of literary fiction these days, but here the otherworldly notes feel fully integrated.
In the penultimate story, “Lost in Pere Lachaise Cemetery,” Sadie reunites with her Chilean lover Daniel in the sprawling Paris cemetery, where the famous dead are described as having all “shown courage in love.” Sadie hasn’t seen Daniel—and neither have we—since their love affair in the second story, “Quiero Bailar Slow with You Tonight,” when she emailed every Avon representative she could find to identify the particular scent worn by Daniel’s long-ago lost novia in Chile in the 1970s. If she can track down the fragrance and wear it, Daniel says he will marry her. She succeeds—the fragrance is called Sweet Honesty—but he nonetheless returns to Santiago, and by the time they meet again, Sadie is married with twin daughters and Daniel is divorced with a son.
Perks handles her characters’ transgressions with tenderness and compassion. Sadie describes the “little tug of war on my heart, lust-love on one side, guilt-anxiety-love on the other, and I wondered if that was just what it felt like to be in a blended family.” She frets, “If this were fiction, we would definitely be doomed. Adulterers always fare badly in literature, and stepmothers fare worse.” But Daniel counters, “Is it really adultery if you’re reuniting with your true love? Nuclear families are bound by genetics, but stepfamilies are full of infinite possibility!” Such forthright declarations are reminiscent of Grace Paley’s fierce characters, and their insistence on speaking the heart’s unadorned truths.
Sometimes the threads between and among stories could be made clearer. Why, for instance, give the same name to two different characters—”Dave” is both Diane’s brother, a screenwriter in L.A. with whom she shares a nearly incestuous bond, and the “Asian guy,” fiction writer Dave Tanaka? Eleven of the twelve stories in True Love were published in literary journals and magazines from 2001 to 2018, and this time spread may account for the collection’s occasional unevenness. Overall, though, the stand-alone nature of each story helps to mitigate the disjointed moments.
In the collection’s final pages, Perks gestures toward the current political scene. Sadie tells Daniel:
“For the last year we’ve all been wearing these ridiculous pink hats and writing our senators and arguing amongst ourselves while he who shall not be named turns us into—into something really ugly,” I said, suddenly too exhausted to find the right metaphor.
The last story, “Refugium,” offers a salve to that exhaustion, as Perks gathers up most of her characters and seats them around a Passover table. The occasion is a celebration of this ragtag clan, whom we’ve witnessed falling apart and reassembling in different configurations, and it’s a pleasure to see them all together. But “Refugium” is also a celebration of storytelling itself. In fact, the whole collection celebrates stories, both written and oral, and their central role in sustaining communities and families. Sisters’ nicknames are borrowed from a children’s book, a neighborhood association maintains an active blog, the local park is named after writer Ambrose Bierce. Stories are the miracle, and the escape, promised by the book’s title.
Isaac describes the Passover gathering as
a refugium… an area in which a population of organisms can survive through a period of unfavorable conditions… this table, this group of people, in the current political climate, is like a refugium.
Reading this collection is a refugium as well—a healing exploration of intimacy and kinship, through the interwoven lives of memorable, flawed, funny, and often perspicacious characters, at a time when we need every miraculous escape we can get.