By Couri Johnson
In Michael Credico’s debut collection of short stories, Heartland Calamitous, he takes us from fever-dream to fever dream in a strange and fragmented Midwest. Corpses bloat in backyard pools for days, dissolving alongside a marriage; a bear is taken into a family to replace the son he devoured, only to be devoured by longing; babies are born by being found under the sink; and lovers are turned to goldfish and are flushed away. But behind all the fantastic conceits in this collection remain very real, very poignant questions that will cut readers to the bone. Questions about what it means to be a man, questions about what it means to have a home, what we owe our families, and why these things often hurt more than they should. These are the fables of the modern-day—the stories that place us in myths and dreams that distort the world around us so that we might see it all the more clearly.
Loss moves swiftly and perpetually throughout this book, and the ramifications of it ripple in beautiful ways. Sometimes, loss does not even give you a chance to catch your breath. “I bought her a bird for us, a life we could both touch. ‘Look,’ I say, ‘It can’t go anywhere,’” Credico opens one story with, before swiftly bringing down the axe; “And she says, ‘But I am’ and then she’s gone.” Often, Credico’s narrative turns are surprising, beautiful and unexpected. Often, he pulls the rug out from under the reader’s feet just as they are getting comfortable, leaving them to wade through the new painful world alongside his protagonists. Readers will find their sentiments echoed by the man with his bird and his lost wife; “Nothing was what I expected, so I just kept going.” They’ll want to keep going, to keep trying to make sense of Credico’s world, which will walk them through the American Heartland, through well-known places such as Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, slaughterhouses and Burger Kings; he transforms these places into unknowns in order to show us just how little we know about ourselves and others, and how to explain ourselves to those we hold dearest. We all become commuters when we travel alongside Credico’s work, and in that sense, we all become strangers.
Language, too, is made strange, beautiful and unexpected. Credico’s sentences are like shattered glass in some points—fine and fragmented and sparkling; “He is lost in the thicket. The trees are sapping heavily. He tastes it until his teeth ache, his stomach hurts.” Each of these narratives is touched with poetry, which enunciates moments where Credico decides to set us down in reality with a straightforward description of often brutal moments, such as “She shot herself three times and that should be the end of the story.”
But loss is never the end of the story, of course. Loss leaves behind its own journey, its own questions, and this collection is asking you to consider all of them, because they need asking. They can’t help but be asked, the narratives insist, even if you get lost along the way trying to answer them. And this book is the perfect place to be lost in search of those answers.