January 2014

Heather Partington

fiction

The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic by Christopher Merkner

Christopher Merkner wants to make you uncomfortable. This is evident from the first story of his collection of short stories, The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic. In "Of Pigs and Children," a man fingers the wet nostrils of his mother's pig with wanton abandon while he struggles -- through denial -- to tell her the details of his uncle's gruesome death. Merkner revels in an alluring mix of seduction and suspense, the juxtaposition of mother-son bond with a dose of anticipation and the macabre. The details of the story are meted out with careful timing; each moment is precisely measured.

Merkner's book is in some ways the anti-Domestic, turning ideas of sentimentalism and inherent goodness of mankind on their heads. These are stories that end in moments sharp as knives: blood spills, hooks pierce eye sockets, bones break. Merkner's writing doesn't shy away from rough images. This lack of sentimentalism enables him to write humor through pain, humor through awkwardness, and humor through fatigue, lending the collection accessibility even in the most extreme stories. For all its raw imagery, Scandamerican centers on the home, on the relationships of the family and small community.

Scandamerican touches on a range of topics. "Check the Baby" is a humorous jab at the bargains new parents make with each other to avoid responsibility. "In Lapland" is the piercingly good and true story of a couple's struggle with painting their house. Things take a much darker turn in "The Cook at Swedish Castle," the story of a family gathering for a matriarch's funeral and the outward manifestations of one character's stress when confronted with familial grief and dysfunction. In "Tomtens," a father pounds and shapes his son to keep him from growing. Merkner's stories vary in length and in style, but always they are always visceral and bitingly funny.

During "In Lapland," a married couple is seduced by the idea of painting their house the perfect color themselves. Before they know it, they're in bed with a project that becomes too complicated and overwhelming.

Later, the nooks of the fireplace walls have filled like lake locks. My wife and I are strewn across the floor like castaways, drunkards. She lies flat, draping her arm over her eyes. Her cheeks are red. She swears again. She asks me if I smoke. We laugh. We are utterly wasted. We are glowing. She says, "could you do more?"

Initially, they're left spent and pleased by their slipshod workmanship, but they visit other houses and see what professional painting looks like and the whole idea of self-driven project begins to fall apart. Anyone who has taken on a failed home improvement project will find this story painfully familiar.

There's a pleasing back-and-forth kind of storytelling in "The Cook at Swedish Castle," a disjointed and dark tale of a family's liquor-soaked grief session. Phone calls outside the house are intermixed with a role-playing game and a dark scene in a back bedroom that culminates in a bloody climax. Merkner writes with truth about the ineffable and difficult feelings that surround death. His use of violence in this particular story seems to speak to the inability of words to quantify grief.

It occurs to me that this death is both a crappy surprise for everyone and yet long overdue. When they are among us, those we love are so much among us we pretend we don't need to do anything. And then they are no longer among us, those we love are so much completely done we pretend we have to do something, everything, to try to bring them back. It occurs to me we probably have this completely backwards.

The strength of "The Cook at Swedish Castle" is in what it says about perception. Characters in the story see only what they expect to see. They are walled off by their own grief, and Merkner allows things to flourish in their blind spots.

In "Last Cottage," the last family of holdouts to sell lakefront property is conspired against by the community, represented as a first person plural narrator. The community doesn't like the Larsons for not selling their house. Their stubborn refusal halts development. "It's very depressing, it's very outmoded, and our tolerance is pressed," they say. When previous attempts to make them sell haven't been successful ("Last year, we decided as a community to vandalize their roof.") The community conspires to perpetuate total ruin for the Larsons. Without giving too much away, a decision is made in the final moments of the story that chills, and Merkner ends the story with an equally chilling line: "Now we know they know loss. Now we know they know us."

The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic is dark, but Merkner finds levity in the darkness, and celebrates the oddities of small life. The collection represents moments of joy and frustration in parenting, marriage, parent-child relationships, and the ties of the community. Merkner isn't afraid to look into dark spaces and expose painfully honest truths. The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic is full of witty, dark humor. Cringe-worthy, but incredibly familiar.

The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic by Christopher Merkner
Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566893381
232 pages