The title of Lydia Peelle’s collection of short stories, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, addresses the silver lining rather than the bulk of her tales. Reasons is about the lives of people who seem to have sufficient grounds to call it quits.
The people Peelle examines are grasping at the bottom rung. There is the obese taxidermist who has recently lost his leg, the unenthused carnie, and the girls whose summer fearlessness astride a duo of ponies is soon swallowed by the perilous dares of fast cars and drugs. The voices of these characters are not whining or sorrowful, but the dullness of loss or emptiness moves alongside them.
The despair arises from the common tragedies that disrupt life. A separation from the loved and familiar; a fork in the road and the doubt accompanying the new path; an attempt at escape and its loneliness. The upheavals are not revolutionary, and yet Peelle dodges the mundane. She probes deeper and brings to the surface people’s facets. Peelle’s characters are caught at the bottom of the hierarchy and amidst the hesitancies of their position.
The narrators have the mark of introspection even when they can’t see their own lives clearly. Despite the seemingly aimless drift that directs many of these characters, they remain fully rooted in life. Most are hoping to break free from where they stand. It is less dissatisfaction that drives them than a notion that there just might be something else. Some are desperate to escape, some merely wonder if they should.
There is another thread that runs through these stories aside from flight. In each of the Peelle’s tales there are animals at the center or skirting the periphery. Somehow the chanced glimpse of a tail or the silent winging of a bird in flight imbues Reasons with an atmosphere that feels particularly American. There is the mysterious, menacing presence of a panther, the myth of the thunderbird, a communion with horses, goats, and reptiles. Peelle’s characters are comforted or haunted by these creatures, be they tamed, feral or mythic. The ubiquitous appearance of animals stabilizes Peelle’s stories. The inclusion of other creatures and acknowledgement of their awareness, suffering and empathetic capacities, diffuses the bleakness of the stories, lending a universal sensitivity to the tales rather than the rampant self-absorption that can stem from human narrations of disappointment.
The animals are embodiments of fears and desires. They read people for their essence when others are blind. By and large the people are lost or foundering and while the animals do not quite provide direction they offer support of a sort and an alternative. Resolutions are unattainable and far from the point in Peelle’s collection. The stories conclude with possibilities rather than answers, and the possibilities are rarely heartening.
In the small spaces of Peelle’s stories, only slices of her characters’ personalities are revealed. Everything shown is cast in the shadow of where their lives have brought them. Despite there being an absence of a visible light at the end of the tunnel, Peelle manages to situate the reader alongside her characters without provoking despondency. It is less a note of empathy that she strikes than one of thoughtful observance. Little of the circumstances of these people’s lives drew parallels with my own, but something kept me afloat despite the weight of what was being experienced and despite the absence of novelty. The impetus to continue forward was quite unidentifiable, but there was a reason.