March 2006

Joanna Petrone


The Wild Creatures: Collected Stories by Sam D'Allesandro

James Joyce wrote that improper art is that which has a kinetic effect -- pornographic art, for instance, incites desire in its audience on behalf of some object. The effect of proper art, by contrast, is to induce “an esthetic stasis... called forth, prolonged, and at last dissolved by what I call the rhythm of beauty.” The best selections from The Wild Creatures meet Joyce’s criteria for proper art. D’Allesandro works masterfully with language, using it to break down and examine the humblest sensations and relearn what it is like to perceive the world from within a human body. As one can infer from the cheesecake cover, sex is a frequent topic of D’Allesandro’s, but the appeal is not aimed at the crotch. Reading a D’Allesandro story evokes not lust but something more elusive. The effect is, quite literally, stunning -- like stepping in front of the ocean, the effect of his words is exhilarating and arresting at once.

The Wild Creatures makes the short stories of Sam D’Allesandro, who died of AIDS in 1988 at the age of 31, available as they have never been before. It is a slim volume that includes the entire contents of the posthumously published collection The Zombie Pit, now out of print, as well as some new additions from the author’s estate. Editor Kevin Killian has added some older, short pieces that were written originally as “prose poems.” Also included is "Travels With My Mother," which D’Allesandro recorded at the end of his life and asked a friend to transcribe when he was too ill to type. Not all the stories are masterpieces. The range, in fact, is quite marked. The short, early pieces read much as one would expect. Only three or four stories offer the kind of esthetic experience described above. The rest fall somewhere in between. A better editor’s introduction might have discussed the development among the stories or provided more biographical detail. As it stands, the postmodern jargon seems self-indulgent when the space that could have been used to shed more light on this overlooked author is instead spent name-dropping, mythologizing and going on about Sam’s good looks.

In all his stories, D’Allesandro employs a first-person narrator, writing in a voice that is calm and oddly heatless. Even when describing a sexual encounter in explicit detail, D’Allesandro’s characters have a way of seeming only half-present in their own lives. In "The Zombie Pit" the narrator watches his companions as they cheer on a tawdry performer at a dive bar.  Meanwhile, he leans back in his chair and thinks of a lover who has disappeared some time ago. Later, he ruminates on being transparent: “Sometimes I just sit and watch when it happens, wondering about the mechanics of feeling real while having no real form to others.  Like a little story where only I can see what’s happening.” In the midst of all the heat and light, the sweaty spectacle at hand, the narrator can’t, like his friends, feel engaged. Ghostlike, he regards the world as someone who is both of and not of the world. The desire to let go of everything and drift away weightlessly is strong. But something prevents him from letting go completely. Something must be holding him back. He lets drop that he “hate[s] the way you have to fight from being made invisible all the time.” 

The characters are spectral in more that one way. Whispers of mortality are always in the air, though sometimes one needs to listen closely to hear them. In others, death’s presence is more explicit. "Travels With My Mother" is a terminal man’s account of taking an RV trip to the home of his recently divorced mother. The narrator of "Nothing Ever Just Disappears" tells a simple story about a lover who died of AIDS. Death’s role in our humanity is great, D’Allesandro’s stories suggest. With death’s scent in the wind, drifting seems the path of least resistance. Better to detach, these voices suggest, as though they are rehearsing their absence from the world. 

The paradox is that while death makes human attachments seem small and faraway, it also makes our cravings for these involvements stronger than ever. Giovanni is, for the narrator of "Giovanni’s Room," “something important, primal, needed.” The title characters of "Sam and Jane," lifelong drifters who learn to kiss on mescaline by the train tracks, can’t not return to human connection, fragile as it is: “we sleep very close, like spoons. Like dozing kittens... Now we don’t want sex from each other as much as we want to be close to each other. To warm and calm each other. We used to use sex as a means of getting that. Now we don’t need to.” Death’s proximity pushes them towards one another, making them crave more than ever such small moments of sympathy and warmth. People want to connect with other people. Death’s approach only heightens the stakes, and D’Allesandro’s characters, whether by being spanked during sex or by looking at old video reels with family, seek out that solace and create attachments in spite of themselves.

The tension arising from the combination of, on the one hand, an isolating sense of the detachment and, on the other, small moments of connectedness is what makes D’Allesandro’s writing vibrate and stun. Beauty, on any scale, can be awesome. “Even here the grain of the wood could fascinate or overwhelm me into shutting my eyes for a dreamless float,” says the narrator in "Giovanni’s Room." When an author as gifted as D’Allesandro dies so young it is often the case that more is made of what he hasn’t written than what he has. That the scale of D’Allesandro’s works isn’t grand doesn’t detract from the accomplishment. He wrote stories that leave the reader in a state of quiet rapture and that make the most ordinary things seem momentarily illuminated. What more can any writer hope to achieve?

The Wild Creatures: Collected Stories by Sam D’Allesandro, Edited by Kevin Killian
Suspect Thoughts Press
ISBN: 0976341115
157 pages