Book Notes: 'Vampires in the Lemon Grove'
“Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” by Karen Russell. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013. 243 pages. $24.95
Readers of Karen Russell’s new book, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” will quickly realize that their imaginations are about to get some exercise. Russell, talented and facile, loosens the reins and lets her stories wander over interesting terrain. The author of the bestselling “Swamplandia!” this time gives us short stories that slip boundaries and confound, but not without rewards.
An aging vampire manages his blood lust by sinking his fangs into fresh lemons; seagulls steal scraps of people’s lives, sometimes causing irrevocable harm; the dark figure of a man lurks in a prairie blizzard; and, for comic relief, a Food Chain Games enthusiastic, perhaps a descendant of Ernest Shackleton, explains the art of tailgating in the Antarctic. Russell bends what we know, with varying degrees of subtlety, and has us looking back at ourselves as if we are peering into a funhouse mirror. Sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s pure gothic dread.
In the title story, Clyde, an aging vampire, narrates. Vampires, we learn, do not require blood, they can tolerate sun and holy water does not incinerate them. He and another vampire, a woman with a penchant for literally hanging out with bats, find each other and settle into a sort of marriage. But Magreb grows tired of the existing world they inhabit and impatient with Clyde and his growing infirmity. For Clyde, no assumption seems reliable and no lifestyle satisfies indefinitely. Even his name, an artifact from the Gold Rush era, has lost its luster. The writing is inspired, even gorgeous, and buoyant with wit. And the ending is not what we or Clyde expect.
Fans of Ernest Shackleton and his story of leadership and survival in the Antarctic, may like Russell’s wry take on sports fans. “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” The Food Chain Games pit Team Krill against Team Whale. Of course the whales always win, but those rooting for the krill hold out hope year after year. The game itself takes 20 seconds, but it takes fans months to prepare. High winds, temperatures known to plummet to –89ºF, dwindling food reserves and unforgiving ice floes are just a few of the hazards. Rules like ‘Pack a Victory Cooler’ and ‘Don’t stop believin’’ sound familiar, but, Rule One: ‘Make friends with your death,’ warns fans of the coming discomforts.
One of my favorites in this cabinet of curiosities is “The New Veterans,” a story that slips the boundaries while Beverly massages a client who has just returned from Iraq. Derek Zeiger witnessed the bloody, violent death of a friend and fellow soldier and now suffers sleep derivation and severe pain in his back. The tattoo on his back, a work of art, is sweeping and beautifully detailed. It depicts the fiery death of his friend. As Beverly massages, she seems to connect with not just with the tattoo but with Zeiger’s muscle memory. She discovers that she can change, if not the actual events, at least Zeiger’s recollections of events. Though she enjoys her job and considers helping people its greatest reward, she doubts the extent of her powers.
“Proving Up” is one of the darkest, most haunting of the stories in the collection. It takes place in Nebraska in the middle of a grueling drought. Farmers are attempting to stake claims under the Homestead Act. One of the criteria is to show the government inspector that your home has a window with panes of glass. Miles’ family has possession of one window that they share with neighbors so that others can also ‘prove up’ and get title to their 160 acres. The inspector is on his way to one of their neighbors and Miles must get there first with the window. He must install, then de-install the window and rush it back home because his family, too, is up for inspection. He rides off and soon hits rain, then blizzard conditions. Things turn bad. His horse abandons him. He encounters a filthy, crazed man who lives in an earthen dugout covered in flies. Meanwhile, out in the blowing snow and ice is the dark shape of a man with ominous intent.
The most disturbing of the stories is probably “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” with its descriptions of bullying and sadistic cruelty among boys. The bullied boy, Mutis, disappears but later his likeness, in the form of a scarecrow, is found tied to a tree that his four tormentors have adopted as their own. The details of friendship, school, and suffering are as sharp and painful. The greatest offender narrates this story, probably as an adult looking back. Like others, resolution is unclear but life has prepared us for that eventuality.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.