Animal Crackers: Stories
A woman who uses mint dental floss to sew up her son's abused pet rabbit. An eyeliner-wearing punk rock conceptual artist who leaves his Colombian red-tailed boa constrictor in his ex-girlfriend's apartment. A museum diorama painter who wishes that her dying father wouldn't donate his body to be stuffed and mounted by an avant-garde taxidermy artist.
These are just a few of the weird birds who populate Animal Crackers, Hannah Tinti's darkly comic short story debut. Reminiscent of fellow hot-young-thing Arthur Bradford's Dogwalker at times, Animal Crackers collects 11 tales that walk the tension-wire line between magical realism and modern suburban gothic, using animals as incidental characters, narrators, metaphors, and physical touchstones for her human protagonists' emotional crises.
Tinti is at her best when she leaves her temptation to anthropomorphize well alone, and uses her animal obsession to create striking imagery, or to reveal telling facts about the humans who co-exist with her beastly characters. In "Home Sweet Home," a dead adulterer is covered in cold cereal that forms "a soggy wet pile of pink plaster across his shoulders" and creates a trail for the neighbor's inquisitive dog to follow, tracking bloody footprints throughout the victims' house. "Slim's Last Ride," narrated from the matter-of-fact point of view of an indulgent unwed mother, relates a young boy's obsession with hurling his rabbit, Slim, out of the second-story window, in graphic detail. Tinti dwells just long enough on the "wet pink sponge of muscle" within Slim's wounds, but the tale's real chill comes from what isn't said, what's only implied--the boy has a serial killer's fascination with animal torture, and his doting mother is too naive to do anything but clean up his macabre bunny mess with rolls of electrical tape and the aforementioned dental floss.
Tinti's deployment of animal imagery is one of her great strengths, but it's also the source of Animal Crackers' most glaring weaknesses--"Reasonable Terms" anthropomorphizes a trio of disgruntled giraffes until they resemble cutesy children's book characters, lost somewhere between human awareness and animal confusion, and lacking the dignity and symbolic weight of Tinti's other animal characters. The story's ending attempts to create a soaring sense of liberation, with the giraffes' leader channeling hallucinatory visions, but in this case Tinti's characterization is far too flat to leave the ground. Still, when she's good, she's very, very good and worthy of the "writer to watch" accolades that Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, and other bookselling giants have been piling at her feet.