Recipes for Endangered Species
Reviewed by Andrew Shepperson
Traci O. Connor begins her debut collection of short stories, Recipes for Endangered Species, with the following dedication: “for all us beautiful monsters.” Considering the haunting quality of each story, this proves to be an apt dedication. In her frantic, lyrical style, Connor leads her readers down razor sharp trails that switch back and forth between worlds—the natural and the supernatural, the real and the surreal—where images both disturbing and beautiful spring off the page in manic bursts. Though it may be unclear at times what is real and what is imagined, these carefully chosen images, wrought with visceral precision, always lead the reader somewhere special.
In the story “Starla and June,” the narrator June takes out the frustrations and fears of her tumultuous relationship with her lover, Starla, by killing animals in her front yard and confessing her crimes to a prosthetic hand that Starla has stolen from a pawn shop. The reader soon learns that Starla has stolen the hand due to a traumatic incident from her childhood in which a dog bit off three of her fingers. This dog attack from Starla’s past becomes motivation enough for June to kill the neighbor’s dog. This act can be seen as both an attempt to try and heal the couple’s relationship and a symptom of June’s mental instability. During this and other attacks (which include the killing of an armadillo and a rabbit), the prosthetic hand is constantly “ghosting”—watching June, commenting on her actions, and even starting up conversations from time to time. Ultimately, the reader is left to decide whether or not the more speculative aspects of the story—images such as the dead rabbit that “hops drunkenly to the edge of the garden” and the prosthetic hand that calls her “my pet”—occur in reality or exist merely as figments of June’s imagination.
Connor creates many of the same effects in the story “Pleasure,” this time using the third person to weave together the narratives of Sarah and John. John follows his mother’s ghost out to the woods where he sees Sarah and her boyfriend having sex, an act she is clearly hesitant to begin and eager to end. He startles the two into stopping, and Sarah soon follows him back to his house. Sarah sees his mother’s ghost in a “long, satin gown—as if she has just come from a party.” Even though Sarah sees John’s mom in such detail that she can describe her gown as “woven of maple leaves turned to wine velvet,” she still denies seeing the ghost when John asks about it later. Based in a beautifully constructed natural world, “Pleasure” transcends the confines of the common ghost story and transforms this very specific, supernatural event into a commentary on the universal themes of love and loss.
Such themes are present in a majority of these stories and are often heightened by the presence of the supernatural or the unseen. In the opening story “The Flying Codona,” a bar singer named Steve is so tormented by both a cruel girlfriend and the ghost of his friend Walt that he jumps off the top of his house. In “Love Like That,” the narrator sees his neighbor’s dead baby in all the babies he cares for at the hospital. With traumatic incidents such as these tormenting the characters, it is no surprise that some choose to take drastic actions while the rest suffer silently in their psychological nightmares. And of course, it’s often unclear which category these characters fall into, as Connor has left many of these stories purposefully ambiguous, aiming to raise more questions about the nature of reality than any reader could ever hope to answer.
Much like the dedication, the title of this collection, Recipes for Endangered Species, speaks both to the readers and the characters of the stories. After every story, Connor has included a cocktail recipe, offering her readers solace from the dangerous and unseen forces that play key roles in all stories. Though these stories are never easy to completely comprehend, they are always moving and evoke a wide range of emotions in their intrepid explorations of the darker forces of madness, obsession, and loss. Connor writes in the story “Goat” that “the night swells and swells and then, like a violent summer storm, explodes.” Such is the kind of menacing beauty found in Recipes for Endangered Species, which is a must read for those willing to stray from the brightly lit highways of conventional storytelling and follow Connor down shadowy side streets haunted by monsters foreign and all too familiar.
Andrew Shepperson was born and raised in Albuquerque, NM. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife Natasha and is pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago.Posted on November 22, 2010 at 3:23 PM