40 pages, $8.95
Review by Thomas Michael Duncan
In the first episode of his podcast, The Monthly, Mike Meginnis observes that the chapbook, as a form, appears to be something “people enjoy publishing much more than they enjoy reading.” This struck me as a smart, if generalized, reflection on the medium. Like new literary magazines, a spattering of chapbook publishers appears to sprout from nowhere every few days. This is likely an outcome of the current economic and cultural climate, where it is too expensive for upstart presses to print full-length books when more and more readers gravitate towards digital editions or free online content. The chapbook offers a cost-effective way to put something physical in a reader’s hands, but the ease of production also lends the form to hurried publication and incohesive collections.
Yet when a publisher puts real time and consideration into a chapbook, when a writer tells vibrant stories that bleed into the margins, and when a sharp design meets fitting, fascinating artwork, the result is too great to ignore. In other words, the result is Families Among Us, winner of the 2013 Black Lawrence Press Chapbook Competition.
An entire universe lives within these forty pages, spun into existence with the sincere cadence of an ancient origin story:
“The decision to leave the sea was permanent, a unanimous vote to abandon the fuselage that had been their home, for how many years they could not count. On shore, among the smooth rocks and wet driftwood, they dressed. They stood on uncertain legs. Out of the water their arms seemed to move too fast, cutting through the air without resistance. For the first time the children heard waves crashing, birds overhead, and felt the warmth of the sun on their bare skin. A multitude of smells swirled about the children, and they smiled and dripped dry for the first time in memory.”
One string that threads each story is the act of transformation from human to animal. A mysterious young woman becomes an owl, a young boy in the woods becomes a bear. These metamorphoses tear rifts in families, forcing mothers, fathers and siblings to reconcile the reality of these changes and their consequences. At times, this challenge is too great.
In “And Finally the Tragedy,” a boy is transformed into an anomalous flying creature with a functional film projector spinning between his jaws. The tragedy is not the transformation itself, rather the outright rejection of the boy by his family and persecution by the community at large. He is hunted down by hounds, cornered by a torch-waving mob like a medieval monster.
In an interview for The Master’s Review, Kimzey says this about his debut collection: “The stories in Families Among Us are close to me, the kind of stories I write when I want a break from the longer, realist fiction I normally write.” For readers, this chapbook is a welcome pause from realism, a chance to give in to and live briefly in the fantastical.
Thomas Michael Duncan writes fiction, fact, opinion, and the occasional bit of nonsense. A recent escapee of upstate New York, he lives in Lexington, South Carolina. You can haunt him on twitter @ThomasMDuncan.