In the tradition of Lorrie Moore, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Rebecca Lee, this debut linked-story collection cuts into the sometimes dark heart of the American family.
In the tradition of Lorrie Moore, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Rebecca Lee, this debut story collection cuts into the sometimes dark heart of the American family
From the tense territory of a sagging, grand porch in Texas to a gated community in steamy Thailand to a lonely apartment in nondescript suburbia, these linked stories unwind the lives of three families as they navigate ever-shifting landscapes. Wry and sharp, dark and subversive, they keep watch as these characters make the choices that will change the course of their lives and run into each other in surprising, unforgettable ways.
The Bowmans are declining Texas gentry, heirs to an airline fortune, surrounded by a patriarch's stuffed trophies and lost dreams. They will each be haunted by the past as they strive to escape its force. The Fosters are diplomats’ kids who might as well be orphans. Jill and Maizie grow up privileged amid poverty, powerless to change the lives of those around them and uncertain whether they have the power to change their own. The Guzmans have moved between Colombia and the United States for two generations, each seeking opportunity for the next, only to find that the American dream can be as crushing as it is elusive.
Amy Parker's debut collection considers--with an unfailingly observant eye--our failures and our successes, our fractures and our connections, our impact and our evanescence. She marks herself a worthy heir to the long tradition of smart women casting cool and careful glances at the American middle class.
The White Elephant
The dust that Pancho bit down South ended up in Lefty’s mouth.
Carline and I sat at the breakfast table dressed as the dancing ostriches from Fantasia. It was Halloween morning, 1967 — the last year of my family’s unbroken life — and my older sister and I were having a fight with our mother. She had made these outfits for our schools’ costume parade.
“My beautiful ballerinas,” Daddy said. “Both of you. Miss Cissy and darlin’ Carline the Pageant Queen.”
“We’re not ballerinas,” Carline retorted. “We’re freaks.”
To eat, we wore our papier-mâché beaks shoved up on our foreheads. My tummy strained against the waistband of the ostrich-feather tutu Mother had stitched; Carline, lithe in her plumage, batted irritably at the huge black hair-bow Mother insisted each of us wear.
“Nobody but Minnie Mouse wears a giant goddamned bow on her head!”
Carline’s eyes, lovely and blue and huge, blazed under false eyelashes. My own eyes burned from envy and eyelash glue.
“Carline looks better than me.”
“Better than I,” said Mother. “Don’t compare, Cissy.”
“If you didn’t want her to compare, you shouldn’t have dressed us alike,” said Carline.
Unfortunately for us, Mother was a woman of powerful imagination.
“You wanted an animal costume, Cissy,” Mother told me. “Carline wanted to go as Odile. It’s easier to make one costume twice.”
“You always say never do something simply because it’s easier,” I said.
“A mother can’t survive without some double standards, Cecilia. And besides, no one will know you’re dressed alike; you go to different schools.”
She took a prim sip of her coffee and with maddening composure returned her attention to her halved grapefruit.
“Mama, this getup is about as far from Swan Lake as the moon!”
Carline had just turned twelve and still danced ballet. Most girls had given it up by then. (Mother had already let me quit and I was only ten.) Carline at least was built like an ostrich, long neck and all, so her costume suited her. Except for the beak, she looked gorgeous. I was, Carline pointed out, built more like one of Fantasia’s dancing hippos.
“My tutu’s itchy,” I complained.
“Clothes impart discipline,” said Mother. “Look at your father.”
Daddy wore his pilot’s uniform, which might as well have been a Halloween costume. He flew for Lonestar Air — a trans-Texas airline company his own father had started back in what Pawpaw called the golden age of flight. Daddy was airforce-trained, saw action in Korea. Someday, Pawpaw said, he would run the company, if he kept his nose clean and his whistle dry. Tee-totalitarian, Daddy called him.
The heavy navy blue uniform gave Daddy square corners. His white shirt made him look crisp and alert; the knotted tie dignified his poorly shaven neck and lifted his chin. When he set his heavy captain’s hat on his head, its shade lent his features an expression of cheerful seriousness. In his pilot’s costume, he looked like someone you could trust.
His uniform perked us all up because it meant he’d be gone from the house. His absence from home was like a pulled tooth, a hole to explore, gingerly, but with deep relief.
“There won’t be any fighting during your Aunt Loretta’s visit,” my father said, and lit a cigarette. “And you girls best get home from school right quick and clean my trophy room.”
“I wish you wouldn’t smoke at the table,” Mother told Daddy. “Carline, you eat two more bites of that egg.”
Carline cut the bites and pushed them around on her plate. She didn’t like to eat. She used her mouth for sass, mainly.
“It’s not our job,” Carline announced. “It’s her job to clean Daddy’s morgue.”
“I’m standing right here,” said Mother.
Carline pinched me.
“Caroline Louise Bowman,” snapped Mother. “You are excused from this table.” Carline smiled. She’d gained her point; she handed her plate to Mother, egg uneaten.
Mother stacked the plates noisily. When she leaned over to clear Daddy’s, she inhaled deeply and said, “A little more aftershave, Mark. And you might want this.”
She slipped him a packet of Sen-Sen to clear up his breath.
“Shoot, Grace, you got a nose on you like a bloodhound,” said Daddy. “No one else can smell a thing. Right, Cissy?”
I leaned in and sniffed.
“No sir,” I lied.
“I don’t see why we need to clean up for old Aunt Loretta,” said Carline from the doorway. She looked over at Daddy to gauge her effect.
He sat turning his pilot’s cap over in his hands, putting off the moment when it would weight his head. He had one last Starliner run to make to El Paso — a trip that would bring him back to us by the late afternoon. Fortunately, he hadn’t caught Carline’s remark. Daddy was a great talker but a bad listener; he tuned in at the wrong times and to the wrong things. If we pitched our voices right the odds were good that he’d miss half the meaning of anything we said. It was safer that way. Daddy had moods.
Usually any mention of Aunt Loretta brought on a tirade about how far away his sister lived or a hymn to her praises. He took hops out to see her in Big Spring because it was on his flight route, but we had never met her. We were pilot’s children, but we had never been up in a plane.
“What’s this about Loretta?” said Daddy. “You girls ready for the sweetest woman that ever lived? You ready to meet your little cousin? Loretta says he’s pure Bowman. I ever tell you girls my sister’s nickname?”
“Only a thousand times daily from birth,” said Carline.
“Can I call her Aunt Pistol?” I asked. I hoped if I loved Aunt Loretta as much as Daddy did, I’d get on his good side.
“It’s ‘may I. ’ And say aunt, not ant, Cissy. She’s not an insect,” said Mother.
“She sure as hell ain’t no insect! My big sister,” said Daddy, “is a pure pistol; one hundred percent red-blooded Texan — wild, wild, wild. Sure is cute as a bug, though.”
He winked at Mother. Mother looked away. She couldn’t bear it when Daddy got folksy.
“Ever since we was kids,” he said, “I called her Pistol and she called me Gunn. Can’t wait for you girls to meet her. She’s a true Southern lady. She’s a Belle Starr bom...
A New York Times Editors' Choice
Named a "Best Book of 2016" by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Parker’s prose is precise and vital, at points breathtaking. She has a marvelous knack for swift characterization… The stories are most moving when Parker’s emotionally astute eye stays focused on the human dramas...No one is safe, Parker reminds us, especially within the family circle—but one's chosen family can also offer salvation...Parker's own care is evident in the pages of Beasts and Children. The stories, like the mounted heads in the Bowman's trophy room, rivet the gaze, demand that readers reorganize themselves in those glassy eyes—and then become disconcertingly alive.”
—Kirstin Valdez Quade, New York Times Book Review
"Parker's knife-edge debut collection ingeniously links the fates of three clans—the dynastic Texas Bowmans, the striving Colombian American Guzmans, and the worldly Fosters - through the intimately observed lives of the young progeny (and pets) on whom the families' messy and magical legacies are not lost."
"An electrifying, daring, and magical debut collection sure to appeal to fans of Karen Russell and Lorrie Moore."
"[Beasts and Children is] an unflinching and vivid debut, both witty and relentlessly brutal, and an incredible book...Parker’s stories are arrestingly, uniquely bizarre. Rather than kitsch or quirky, they’re instead strange verging on macabre. The surreal and the extraordinary elements of Parker’s stories — often manifesting in the collection’s menagerie of animals — are curious details that give the stories a dream-like tone or serve as symbols of cruel nature for human and beast alike."
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"A beautiful book, filled with stories that are powerful as individual pieces and abidingly heartrending when taken together. Beasts and Children is an exceptional debut."
"This riveting collection executes a grim autopsy on American family life."
“With her hauntingly perceptive and deeply honest voice, Amy Parker transports readers into the astonishing and often calamitous minds of children. Beasts and Children is a dazzling debut to be celebrated.”
—Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being, My Year of Meats, and others
“Reading Beasts and Children, I was struck not only by Amy Parker's incisive and skillfully crafted sentences but by the depth and integrity with which she treats every one of her characters. A beautiful and engaging debut.”
—Molly Antopol, author of The Unamericans
“Parker's debut collection of interwoven short stories is stunning. At first glance the stories merely examine the inner lives of pedestrian middle class families; then slip in dark and subversive twists. Parker wryly observes each character, fiercely independent and yet reliant on and at the mercy of the natural web of human life that supports and sustains us. Parker's skillful and beautiful use of language, coupled with her capacity to shock makes this book a page turner.”
—Mia Wigmore, Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood
“It isn’t often that we encounter a writer who presents us, as readers, with a new-new style, a new way of looking at our beleaguered, battered world. But Amy Parker is that kind of artist. Beasts and Children is utterly original and true-hearted, a clear-eyed exploration of the natural world and our own delightfully flawed human relationships. The spirit of Flannery O’ Connor resides in this collection of stories; Beasts and Children is the literary debut of a major talent.”
—Nickolas Butler, internationally-bestselling and prize-winning author of Shotgun Lovesongs and Beneath the Bonfire
"Beasts and Children is a beautiful, haunting collection of stories whose deeply flawed and yet deeply human characters weave and wind themselves around your heart. As we follow them from childhood to adulthood, from old age to death, we learn that in the midst of all of life's tragedies, love comes from unexpected places.”
—Chinelo Okparanta, author of Under the Udala Trees and Happiness, LIke Water
“Intense, beautiful, and true, the stories in Beasts and Children speak to that catastrophe known as childhood: the loneliness and fleeting camaraderies; the perilous gaps of adult attention and soul-saving intimacy with the natural world. In her remarkable debut, Amy Parker proves herself an unflinching, passionate, and profoundly humane writer, even as she holds a knife to your heart.”
—Michelle Huneven, author of Blame and others
“Amy Parker’s stories are intensely interested in the human heart, and in particular the way it is often laid bare by the perpetual crises of childhood and family. As the stories twist and knot into what we understand as the characters’ full, complex lives, the reader is taken again and again by the alacrity of Parker’s narrative vision, her radical empathy for person and animal alike, and her touch with language. This collection rejuvenates and fantastically engages a classic preoccupation; it is fiction that does justice to the complicated joy and sadness of being alive, in a family, in this world.”
—Arna Bontemps Hemenway, author of Elegy on Kinderclavier, winner of the 2015 PEN/Hemingway Award
“Amy Parker's stories are thrillingly self-possessed. They stand perfectly poised, like balancing artists, between the lyrical and the no-nonsense, the impassioned and the restrained. She has a gift for uncloaking the mysteries of her characters, particularly the children, who themselves struggle to uncloak the mysteries of the great big world of other minds into which they've been born: friends and grown-ups, strangers and parents, humans and animals alike. I was moved and fascinated by this book. I'll be first in line to read her next.”
—Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Brief History of the Dead and others
“Lyrical and brutally straightforward. . . . The characters in these ten stories are linked across time and space—from Texas in the 1960s and Thailand in the 1980s to California and the mid-West in the present day. Parker reveals the poignant and the painful as well as the eternal hopefulness that characterize the human condition.”
—Alice, Blue Willow Bookshop
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