'Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain': down, out and confronting death
The stories in Olympia author Lucia Perillo's new collection, "Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain," examine lives damaged by bad luck, tough circumstances and loss.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain'
by Lucia Perillo
W.W. Norton, 216 pp., $23.95
There's no doubt Lucia Perillo has a gift for crafting words — her poems have been lauded as "spellbinding" and "nourishing." When awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship 12 years ago, she was hailed for her "exceptional creativity." In the years since then, the Olympia author's work has appeared in leading publications such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, and her poetry collection titled "Inseminating the Elephant" received the Washington State Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Perillo's latest book, "Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain," displays the same careful wordsmithing. But the title of this collection of 14 short stories hints at the general disposition of the tales — flinty, truculent, sardonic.
These are snapshots of lives in a moldering Northwest town, or "bulletins from Loserville," as one of Perillo's recurring characters says. The players are damaged goods. Their lives have been defined by poor choices or pitiable circumstances. Sometimes it's just plain old bad luck that has trapped them in their mobile homes or crummy jobs or wheelchairs.
Three of the stories look in on a divorced woman and her two grown daughters — one with Down syndrome and the other with a propensity for bad-news boyfriends. There are occasional reprieves here, and while some of them are grimly humorous, none of them is happy. As seen through the eyes of the sister with the higher IQ, there are only litanies of dysfunction and shrunken dreams.
A couple of the tales are about near misses. A young woman takes up with an older man who turns out to have an unsavory past in "A Ghost Story." In "Report from the Trenches," a stylish young matron recalls her reprobate youth.
"The Water Cycle" is a short story in several acts, related by a classmate who witnesses the kidnapping at school of a teen girl by her father, the media blitz surrounding their days on the run, and the girl's eventual return as damaged goods. Despite the prosaic narrator, the arc of this story gleams — Perillo exercises total, exquisite, chilling control.
There are stories about death. In "Ashes," a man takes his dad's cremated remains to a stripper bar before scattering them in the forest at a tree called The Patriarch. In "House of Grass," a doctor who's taken up bird-watching can't avoid seeing the death happening all around him in his retirement community. He muses about mortality and our common fate: "Inside the body we are all much the same, just as a bird without its pelt of variegated feathers becomes a lump of undistinguished meat."
The title story is a contemplation of suicide.
Taken altogether, the stories of "Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain" are keenly observed, attentively fashioned scripts on the inevitability of our demise — most likely to be embraced by devotees of the old adage that life is hard, and then you die.