When I was growing up in my own beleaguered industrial hometown, there was a kid in the neighborhood so famous for his grossness we didn’t accuse each other of having cooties, but The Gordie Touch. Gordie was a chubby special ed kid with cracked thick-lensed glasses and a shabby buzz cut. He wore stained hand-me-down overalls and was forever riding his too-small bike through the halls of the school, or chasing us down the sidewalk swinging a bicycle chain, the madness and delight in his eyes magnified by those glasses.
If you, too, have just read Xhenet Aliu’s Domesticated Wild Things, winner of the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, you’ll forgive this digression. These eleven stories rooted in Waterbury, Connecticut, a city that once led the world in brass manufacturing, capture the struggling single mothers, fathers often absent or abusive, and children of the Gordie variety: neglected, running amok, and chubby “from a lifetime of Headstart breakfasts and free lunch in Sloppy Joe-heavy public school cafeterias.” Aliu’s stories are vivid, funny as hell, and deeply compassionate, with characters that feel familiar even if you didn’t grow up in Waterbury, or Flint, or any of the other blighted landscapes Forbes puts on its worst cities lists.
Which isn’t to say Aliu is crafting Waterbury as some Rust Belt anywhere. It’s a town specific in its wildness, and what remains is much more interesting to Aliu than what has been lost. The stories don’t linger long on the abandoned mills, but explore the makeshift wrestling rings, Greek diners, tattoo parlors where boys “inked a love even brighter than the chrome on their bikes,” and backyard aquariums waiting for the king cobra babies whose sale will end all financial woes. In the collection’s first story, “You Say Tomato,” teenage Slatora considers the drive-in theater, “shut down before I could ever watch a movie there, the broad white screens still propped up on poles like sails on a boat that had run a hundred miles ashore.” Sure, the drive-in could serve as a symbol of the town’s former heyday, and maybe that boat image gestures toward the journey from Europe Slatora’s (and Aliu’s) parents made to work in the mills, but it’s also just straight-up blight: a fact of the landscape, as much as the oxidized brass horse statue across from the YMCA.
The challenge of a book like Aliu’s seems to be how to capture the lives of Waterbury’s most down and out without either sentimentality or sensationalism— short fiction as poverty porn. There is undoubtedly a fascination with the uncouth here—just try and count how many times characters are described relieving themselves, or in how many stories animal feces are noted. Beyond the banal grossness of piss and shit, though, Domesticated Wild Things gives us broken homes, welfare, drug abuse, and criminal behavior ranging from murder to breeding venomous snakes. There’s incest and multiple levels of abuse in “The Kill Jar,” narrated by a 5th grader whose mother is taking his Ritalin and sleeping with her former father-in-law. Child molestation is alluded to in “You Say Tomato” and is described startlingly in “Ramon Beats the Crap Out of George, a Man Half His Size.”
What redeems these stories, though, is their compassion. If you’ll allow me to return to Flint circa 1994, these stories don’t scream when they get the Gordie Touch and run home to seek sanctuary in their own relatively more comfortable dysfunction. They follow Gordie home.
In perhaps the strongest story in the collection, “Feather Ann,” a YMCA summer camp counselor deals with her dying mother and with the title character, a solitary, tough-as-nails, dangerously poor ten year old who steals the narrator’s moccasins. The story (in a stunning use of second person) examines its subject with loving detail. Consider how Aliu introduces us to Feather Ann:
“The girl’s name is Feather Ann, and from the moment you see her you expect her to have scars from diseases people don’t get anymore, like measles. You expect her to wear a Band-Aid that flaps around on her shin when the glue finally turns black and quits.”
When the quest to retrieve her moccasins takes the narrator to Feather Ann’s house, the revelation is too good to give away here, but the complicated empathy and the lyricism in that scene encapsulate the collection. In this moment, we see Waterbury, and for a fleeting moment, we understand Feather Ann and how “the chance of things turning out differently was slim, considering the environment and the thirdhand puff-painted sweatshirts in which she was raised.” Like the narrator, we don’t fault her for making off with those moccasins and stuffing them like an ill-fitting bra.
In Necessary Fiction’s “Research Notes” series, Aliu defines good fiction as “an exercise in empathy via imagination that widens the lens through which I see the world off the page.” In Domesticated Wild Things, we see the almost too strange to be true collide with the deeply familiar. This is a portrait of the equally flawed and resilient people living in postindustrial America—an important account of voices seldom heard.
By Kelsey Ronan