Holding up a mirror to a rudderless culture

By Richard Eder
August 21, 2011

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Superficially there seems little to link the stories in Caitlin Horrocks’s debut collection, “This Is Not Your City.’’ A woman recalls her cruelty to a dying childhood friend; a man offers a loving home to dogs whose owners can no longer keep them, only to sell them for laboratory experiments; an unqualified young teacher devises weird punishments to keep her class in order; a couple on a cruise boasts to fellow passengers about the brilliance of a severely handicapped child institutionalized back home.

What many of the stories have in common is startlingly ingenious writing and a note of what could be called sprightly heartbreak. There is an offhand jauntiness in telling terrible things. The dissonance is sometimes gratuitous, but in the better stories, the blithely appalling character of what goes on intends a reflection on the unmoored values of a have-it-all and have-a-nice-day society. (The cruise couple would find it shameful to present anything but a bright face to the world.)

Such values have corrupted and malformed the younger generation in “Steal Small.’’ Horrocks’s wild, yet delicately handled satire gives Swiftian slash to the benumbing news stories about the lack of youthful job opportunity. All that the likable Leo has been able to find is working a bolt gun to kill cattle in a slaughterhouse. (It must be carefully done, he explains; otherwise the animals will be hustled down the line and butchered alive.) To make more money he runs the dog operation. His girlfriend, the narrator, has a scruple or two but is inhibited from challenging him by her own shame at failure to confront a neighbor who’d regularly bribed her little sister to have sex. A generation that avoids wave making, Horrocks implies.

“Zero Conditional’’ reflects another link between societal and individual abdication. Eril, feckless and indifferent, has tried for a host of assorted jobs. Finally, without credentials, she is hired as a third-grade teacher by a phony Montessori-type school. Discipline breaks down: She devises such punishments as cutting off the hair of a girl who passes notes, making a boy sit on a pin, having the entire class stand barefoot in the frozen schoolyard. The principal, unable to hire proper teachers, overlooks it.

But the chain of indifference had started earlier. Eril’s parents, having brought her up in a comfortable suburb, suddenly move to Arizona to live easy, leaving Eril, suddenly unsupported, to find a grotty apartment. Nobody is bound to anybody.

Other stories mingle a note of tenderness in the desolation. The finest of them, “Zolaria,’’ tells of the sudden binding friendship of the narrator with Hanna, a fellow fifth-grader. It was a magical time of sudden freedom. “It is July and we are a miraculous age,’’ Horrocks writes. “We have been sprung from our backyards . . . We are old enough to have earned a larger country, and young enough to make it larger still.’’ They wander together, invent a kingdom complete with a monster named Ogan Veen.

Then Hanna is stricken with cancer. The narrator visits her a few times, but “I will realize I am waiting for her to be either well or dead.’’ When Hanna eventually returns to school, wearing a wig, she “will be pale and her face swollen and she will not seem like someone I can afford to know.’’ The narrator has joined a class clique, avoids her, and takes part when the other girls grab her wig and toss it around. When Hanna dies, the narrator stays away from the funeral, fearing that the parents know of her treachery. It is the beginnings of remorse, recalled years later.

The title story is one of two set in Finland, where Horrocks has lived. Written more roughly, it too has a note of tenderness. Daria, a Russian woman, has answered an ad seeking wives for old Finnish men. Her teenage daughter, Nika, though furious, loyally helps her dress and make up attractively for the photograph that she sends in and that leads to marriage. Later, when Nika’s Finnish boyfriend drowns in a swimming mishap and Nika blames herself, Daria summons her own loyalty, rallying her daughter with the same hard-bitten realism she’d used to marry and come to Finland.

Some of the stories in the collection are marred by wild extremes that lack the wider, wiser relevance of “Steal Small’’ and “Zero Conditional.’’ The protagonist of “Embodied,’’ with a day job as a respectable auditor, is convinced she has lived 127 different lives throughout history. Several of the children in these lives were evil, so when her own baby is born she smothers it. The oddity is forced and gratuitous.

At her best, though, Horrocks is a writer whose distinctively offbeat style cuts dismayingly into her time and generation. Even the best stories display a touch of contrivance; they apply the writer’s imagination, perhaps, more than they generate it. But it is a formidably promising imagination.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for various publications, can be reached at richardeder@

THIS IS NOT YOUR CITY By Caitlin Horrocks

Sarabande, 169 pp., paperback, $15.95