January 2015

Heather Partington

fiction

Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce

Characters in Thomas Pierce's new collection of short stories, Hall of Small Mammals, are observers. Pierce juxtaposes science and faith, and his stories show how they share a desire to explain and label the world. Seeing truth is central to his characters' understanding of life around them -- obliteration of fear, faith in humanity (or man's ability to thrive), and the order of the animal kingdom are ideas that bleed from one story to the next. Pierce's characters live in the overlap of a science-faith Venn diagram.

"Shirley Temple Three" opens the collection. In it, Tommy works for a TV show that reanimates extinct species. When he brings a mammoth back to life and doesn't have the heart to euthanize it, he drops it off at his mom's house and splits. His mother's belief in creation means she has to reconcile the beast in her laundry room with her understanding of God. This sets up what will be a lasting tension in Pierce's work: Can faith and science live together in the world? Or inside our heads and laundry rooms? "This is a terrible thought," thinks Mamaw, Tommy's mother.

What if today is still God's seventh day and He hasn't woken up yet from his rest? That would explain why He's been so quiet lately. What if, when He wakes up on the eighth morning, He decides He doesn't like what we've been up to down here? Maybe He'll be grumpy with us and stamp out all the lights again, return the world to darkness.

Mamaw asks the question that all of Pierce's characters will go on to ask: What if science requires another kind of faith, a faith that can live in the world of measurable and quantifiable truths? Not all of Pierce's characters hold these two disparate beliefs together peacefully, but Pierce wants to explore the kinds of faith we have, and how they might live together with hard-and-fast science.

"We of the Present Age" is a turning point in the collection, a key to understanding the struggle between faith and science. Not only does "Present Age" represent a departure from the narrative style of many of the other stories (it is told in plural first person), it is a story out of time. In the early 1800s, an emissary from a scientific academy tries to acquire and assemble a fossil. "Science eats the dark," Pierce's narrator says. "Fear not that which is illuminated. Science names the nameless -- megalonyx, mammoth, mastodon, megathere. Fear not that which has a name. Science excavates; it makes the unfamiliar familiar. Science knows all; it demystifies." Dr. Anders, the naturalist in question, tries to fight against the prevailing notions of fossils as evidence of devils, or even mythological creatures. But ultimately his weakness means he is ineffective against a "showman's infamous traveling museum," which acquires the beast and assembles its bones haphazardly. "Present Age" shows us the entanglement of mysticism with early science. Specious religious tales and early scientific experimentation are both means to a similar end: the explanation of our existence, and of the significance man has in the world.

Hints of detail tie one story in Hall of Small Mammals to another, and "Saint Possy" has connections to "Present Age" -- both a name and a bit of bone appear in each. The narrator of "Possy" is haunted by a skull that he and his wife find in the attic of their old house. It begins to affect his dreams.

That night I had another dream. I was pregnant again, but in this one, whatever was growing in my belly could talk. It had a smooth voice, baritone, vaguely southern, muffled by my flesh, and it called me a coward. It called me a wretch. It spoke with the power of all the saints in heaven. It called me names I don't even remember but still feel.

Here, as in his other tales, Pierce wants to subject his characters to an object or scenario that will challenge their worldview. That worldview may be belief in a quantifiable universe, as in "The Real Alan Gass," or in a Boy Scout-like hierarchy, as in "Grasshopper Kings." Often Pierce's characters are simply waiting for something to appear, mired in the absurdity of their existence, as in the Godot-esque "More Soon."

Hall of Small Mammals is a skilled collection of explorations on what it means to believe. Pierce teases faith and science out into myriad scenarios, and highlights our principal desire to put our belief into worldviews that make sense of what we see. Each story is a journey into a different kind of observation. Hall of Small Mammals shows us that it might be our need to explain which makes us most human.

Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce
Riverhead
ISBN: 978-1594632525
304 pages