In the Middle Ages, bestiaries--volumes of fables about animals both real and fantastic--were used to illustrate the finer points of Christian thought to those unable or unwilling to spend their weekends tackling the Summa Theologica. Lions, griffins, dogs, lambs, peacocks, unicorns and many more creatures, each of them representing identifiable spiritual characteristics, jumped out of the pages of countless illuminated manuscripts, imparting to their amazed readerships important lessons about vigilance, temperance, fidelity and a host of other Christian virtues.
In Creatures of Habit, her new collection of short stories, Jill McCorkle has invented a modern bestiary for a new breed of faithful: the community of souls linked not by adherence to any religious doctrine, but by a shared, silent belief in the redemption of the human spirit. The "habits" betrayed by her characters are as ineluctable as the hard-wired instincts of certain animals, and usually a good deal more troublesome: the unfortunate habit of settling for the wrong person, for instance, or the cruel habit of ignoring the basic humanity of those living right under our own roofs. Each of these stories is named for a different animal, and the lessons within them suggest that we too are animals, governed by mysterious inner forces that must seem as unfathomable to our beastly kin as the death-plunge of the lemming or the mating ritual of the black widow spider seems to us.
Because McCorkle is a Southerner (she hails from Lumberton, N.C., near Fayetteville) and sets her stories in an imagined small-town Southern locale teeming with restless ghosts, it's tempting to compare her to another writer from the region who covered similar territory. But while McCorkle's Fulton County may only be a day's drive from Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, it's probably closer on the cosmic map to Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, or John Cheever's Shady Hill, as home to an endemic strain of suburban malaise that occasionally rises to the level of mythic struggle. McCorkle shares Faulkner's fascination with the heady pull of barely submerged private histories, but not his grim determinism: The past may not be dead, or indeed even past, for her characters, but that doesn't mean they're going to stop trying to escape its oppressive gravity. Like chroniclers of middle-class anomie such as Yates, Cheever or Hecate County-era Edmund Wilson, McCorkle evinces a darkly satiric vision; unlike them, however, she never judges. She's not lording it over these hardened, battle-scarred men and women (mostly women). They might make grave mistakes, lie to themselves and others, and allow themselves to be manipulated by all the wrong people--but they're not fatuous like Yates' smug arrivistes, or oblivious like Cheever's tipsy nihilists. They're just people trying to make sense of their messy lives, and move on.
Creatures of Habit begins with an overture, "Billy Goats," in which the themes that will course through these tales and give them their power are presented as snatches of leitmotif. A herd of bike-riding neighborhood kids makes its way through Fulton's streets, sneaking into swimming pools and achieving contact highs from the fumes given off by an exterminator's truck. But its members are, more importantly, learning how to tell stories: about the man who killed his wife and then himself in this house over here, about the teenaged math prodigy who "crossed over" into madness and lived in that house there, about the boy who was thrown through a windshield to his gruesome death in front of this house, right here. As recalled by a grown woman who rode with the billy-goat herd as a child, these macabre stories mark the origin of wonder, a prerequisite not only for narrative but for living life fully. The wondrous aspect of a late-night snipe hunt in "Snipe" serves as an introduction to parental deceit for a young brother and sister. By the end of the story, they will have graduated from innocence far ahead of schedule and primed themselves for the world of adult pain.
Those characters of McCorkle's who haven't been dealt some sort of special pain seem to be expecting it to arrive at any moment; all of them have developed pre-emptive strategies for deflecting it. In "Hominids," the wife of a loutish good-old-boy honors her long-suffering cavewoman ancestor by bluntly apprising his sexist, breast-obsessed friends of their unpaid debts to womanhood. "Snakes" tells of a woman forced to defend the hard-won trappings of her world--including her marriage--from her friend, a pretentious and needy interloper who devours everyone and everything in her path.
A number of these stories celebrate the fighting spirit of women unwilling to abandon their principles, which are in some cases all they have left. But throughout Creatures of Habit McCorkle suggests that the most formidable enemy is always the past, and the greatest challenge is discovering a way to absorb its lessons without continuing to dwell in it. A story titled "Monkeys" asks us to reconsider our notion of what constitutes strange behavior, in its depiction of a childless woman (the widow of a suicide and thus one of Fulton's designated eccentrics) who dotes on her late husband's pet monkey and wishes that the neighborhood kids who steal her pomegranates would just ask her for them, so she could experience the simple, unrealized joy of giving something to a child. And in "Cats," McCorkle achieves a moment of breathtaking tenderness as she tells of a divorcee trying in earnest to get on with her life, only to be interrupted again and again by the re-emergence of her remarried ex-husband--a victim of Alzheimer's. The final image from this story is dizzying in its beauty and poignancy, the clearest and most potent distillation of McCorkle's sympathetic gifts.
The least affecting pieces in this collection read more like collapsed (and deflated) novels than the brief, unornamented accounts of epiphany that we usually think of as short stories. But the best of them, such as "Cats," suggest that Jill McCorkle has mastered this form. Creatures of Habit makes the case for humans as animals, true, but it's also a rich reminder of those qualities that indeed separate us from the beasts of the realm: our unique talent for delusion, our capacity for forgiveness, our uncanny ability to remember, our cherished ability to forget.