At Home in America: A Review of Shannon Cain’s THE NECESSITY OF CERTAIN BEHAVIORS

by Conor Broughan, Fiction Editor

Thursday, December 1st, Shannon Cain will be taking part in the Purdue Visiting Writers Series on the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, Indiana. Please join us at the Krannert Auditorium, Room 140 at 7:30. Shannon Cain will be reading from her debut collection The Necessity of Certain Behaviors. The event is free and open to the public.

Cain-150x150 (1)Jane, the protagonist of “This is How it Starts,” the first story in Shannon Cain’s debut collectionThe Necessity of Certain Behaviors and winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize from University of Pittsburgh Press, is a girlfriend to both a married lawyer, who happens to be man, and a doctor, who happens to be a woman. She is also an artist living in her family’s rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan who paints on panes of translucent glass. In order to create a textured still-life or landscape or a portrait, Jane must paint backwards:  “she must paint her foregrounds first, top layers before bottom.” Like Jane, Shannon Cain has put considerable effort into “planning her layers” and in each of the nine stories in her debut he has created textured moments of beauty, stark landscapes and a stunning collection of uniquely American lives.

The textures in Cain’s stories are built upon familiar themes that are juxtaposed to one another in idiosyncratic ways. Sexual identities are challenged, hearts are broken, parents struggle to care for their children without letting go of themselves, and children are left to confront a world changed after the death of their parents. These textures can take a tragic or humorous turn depending on the story, but Cain’s tone is always sincere, honest and generous to her characters that seem to make and get into more trouble in this collection than most writers could manage in a full career of books.

A young woman moves to L.A. to connect with her father, who happens to be Bob Barker from The Price is Right, and finds unexpected love and the truth about her childhood. The wife of a mid-size city’s mayor is caught masturbating in the steam room of a local gym and she must confront not only her vulnerabilities, but those of her husband and their daughter, who has been damaged in ways the mother had never taken the time to notice. “The Queer Zoo” is the story of a heterosexual man working at The Queer Zoo, “home to the world’s largest collection of homosexual, bisexual, and transgender animals.” The Queer Zoo is not only the second busiest attraction in Arizona, behind only the Grand Canyon, but it is also forces the protagonist, Sam, to ask if he has ever really been free.

In the O. Henry Prize final story, “The Necessity of Certain Behaviors,” Lisa escapes from the city on an eco-tourism trip and finds herself in a mountaintop village where she no longer has to “identify” as straight, gay or bisexual as she did in the city and is “thrilled by the jolt of it and by her own desire.” Lisa stays in the village indefinitely and “she no longer knows the difference between lost and found.” She finds contentment, not confusion, in the village that has “made itself available to her.”

100_5985-150x150 (1)All of the stories in the collection call into question the necessity of certain behaviors that the characters act upon in
order to find freedom, love, or redemption. More often than not, the behaviors the characters believe are necessary are misleading, if not self-destructive. In the end, Cain forgives the bad behavior of her characters, but she never lets them off the hook. Charlie, the protagonist of the standout story “Juniper Beach,” abandons her longtime girlfriend after her parents die in a tragically silly car accident. With her inheritance, Charlie buys an old RV and searches for a sense of purpose and herself on American highways, documenting sites of other horrific automobile accidents. In the middle of a strip mall parking lot at sunrise, Charlie admits to herself that “she expected to feel different. She expected to know more about where she was going.” In that way, she is not different from the rest of the characters in the book or from those of us lucky enough to read this collection who are trying to “feel at home in America, rootless yet ensconced, held in place by her movement across strips of landscape.”

The Necessity of Certain Behaviors
Shannon Cain
University of Pittsburgh Press – September 2011
144 pages / $24.95