Monday, August 27, 2012

Animal (stories) make us human

Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories
by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Bergman is married to a veterinarian, which may be why so many of the stories in her debut collection are about animal caretakers and their significant others (whether two- or four-legged). Her short stories bring Lydia Millet's novels to mind, though Bergman is more grounded and less prone to poetic flights of fancy. If her characters some times seem damaged or ever-so-slightly eccentric, it is only because that's how people really are.

A constant theme in her stories is our animal essence and the fundamental kinship of humans and animals. "Animal" here does not imply savage so much as "of flesh and bone." Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but every living thing knows love. More's the pity.

In the title story, a rueful single mother and her young son drive hundreds of miles to a roadside animal show where she hopes to find her late mother's African gray parrot and hear it mimic the dead woman's voice. Other stories hinge on a failure of imagination or of sympathy, as in "The Cow Who Milked Herself." The title character there is a pregnant woman whose husband  unthinkingly points out how the breast pump she unwraps at a baby shower works exactly like a milking machine for cows. He's a boor, sure, but his boorishness is born not of malice but of a typically male kind of blinkered, professional enthusiasm. The reader sees this when he proudly uses his veterinary sonogram equipment on his wife to reveal the child growing within her.

Many of Bergman's stories are driven by competing loves and conflicting loyalties, as when an animal shelter worker is forced to choose between an incredibly indulgent boyfriend and a houseful of unruly strays in "The Right Company." The same conflict plays out more dramatically in the final story, "The Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock." There, a young mother living in the wilds of Maine with a newborn child and a ne'er-do-well husband is tormented by her inability to provide for their baby, much less afford life-saving surgery for their hapless, sock-eating dog. The dog's agony—by contrast—is purely physical, and he remains selflessly loyal to the very end.

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