The eleven stories that make up Hannah Tinti’s new collection, Animal Crackers are engaging, often disturbing, yet compelling looks at what it means to be human in an animalistic world and what it means to be an animal in the world of humans.
The collection opens with the zookeeper in the title story reflecting on how people who work with large animals all have blessures de guerre. It’s part of the job, his colleagues say. “Everyone who works with animals has a mark somewhere.” But the same is true about the people in the story, their cruelty to one another often leaving physical marks behind, as is the case for the zookeeper and his wife. “Home Sweet Home” opens as a murder mystery, witnessed by a dead couple’s dog, but it slowly builds into an intense drama where the reader’s allegiances may switch several times as the story unfolds, without being resolved.
The characters in these ambitious and original stories are often lonely and crave human or animal contact, but Tinti’s eye is unsentimental. “Slim’s Last Ride,” about a woman, her son, and the rabbit given to him by his absent father, is a difficult story to read and yet impossible to put down. This is not to say that the writer doesn’t have warmth for her characters. For example, a filial relationship is keenly, tenderly observed in “Preservation,” where a young painter at the natural museum is in charge of finishing the work of her terminally ill artist father.
Mary takes out one of the prepared needles left by Mercedes, the hospice nurse, and pulls up his nightgown. With a grunt, her father turns, and she jabs the syringe into his small white flat buttock. Her father’s paintings hang in the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art. Large canvases of abstract blues and greens, enveloping the viewer with emotion. There have been two books written about his life. He taught her how to mix colors, how to create perspective, and how to live without a mother. Now he wears a nightgown and lives from shot to shot.
Parent-child relationships are also center stage in “Talk Turkey,” in which three teenage boys struggling with abusive, absent, or neglectful progenitors, run away to the other side of the country. Tinti’s prose is at once sharp and illuminating.
Joey’s mother was standing at the entrance of the kitchen and smoking a cigarette. She looked like a cake under glass, beautiful but tasteless.
A couple of the stories in this collection seem to be fillers, as though an animal was slipped into the tale as an afterthought. The result is clearly less organic, less impressive, as in “Hit Man of the Year” about a young boy who becomes a mafia killing machine but never loses interest in his childhood crush. In others, the animal is central to the story, but becomes more of a gimmick, as in “Reasonable Terms,” about a group of giraffes who decide to wage a strike to improve their living conditions at the zoo.
Despite this, Animal Crackers is a fantastic read. Tinti displays a lot of range, both in subject matter and style, and her striking new collection is a harbinger of bigger things.