Hall of Small Mammals

By Thomas Pierce

(Penguin, $27.95, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Thomas Pierce, who hails from South Carolina and now lives in Virginia, is a graduate of the University of Virginia’s creative writing program. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Oxford American, and other prestigious magazines, and now he has published his debut collection, Hall of Small Mammals.

What is this book about?

So: You are the host of a reality TV show that features tiny cloned versions of extinct beasts, and you park a recently resurrected woolly mini-mammoth in your mama’s laundry room to hide it and have it benefit from her warm Southern hospitality.  Will mama be flummoxed by her new, unruly house pet, or does she have the faith it takes to handle this decidedly unusual task? That is the kind of question Thomas Pierce poses in “Shirley Temple Three,” the first in his debut collection of a dozen brain-tickling stories.  In another, a physicist seeks a mysterious particle and enjoys life with her boyfriend – and also with her totally imaginary husband. Another involves the skull of a dead possum that haunts a couple. Yet another sets up the dilemma of a man whose quarantined brother’s body gets caught up in international intrigue and tests his ideas about the soul. What happens when a father takes his son to a cultish summer camp? Should dinosaur bones become a circus exhibit? Good questions all, and Pierce provides answers that will amuse and amaze.

Why you’ll like it:

All the stories in Hall of Small Mammals raise interesting and provocative questions about belief of all sorts, but the witty and wildly imaginative Pierce is never preachy. The stories’ premises are often quirky, but the final impact of each one is powerful and thought-provoking. It’s always thrilling to encounter a new and promising talent, and this strong debut, set in the American South, offers readers entry into an unusual mind and considerable literary talent.

What others are saying:

Says Bookslut: “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.”

“This arresting debut collection of short fiction from a gifted new writer gracefully renders the textures of the American South and the indefatigable people who live there…. Thomas Pierce’s debut collection, Hall of Small Mammals, taps the aquifer of Southern literature but blends in supernatural elements with a light, deft touch, echoes of García Márquez among the biscuits and magnolias…. Pierce knows his people well, connecting their conflicts to a deeper narrative about the human condition…. With its elegant prose and revelatory insights, Hall of Small Mammals announces a vivid and engaging new voice,”  says the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In The New York Times ,  Janet Maslin says:  “Ridiculously good…These stories never drift vaguely off into the ether. They are beautifully built, and [Pierce] has an especially deft way of finding just the right final flourish. He also has, without exactly linking the stories, let characters and places overlap…These references strengthen the feeling of being inside a bubble while reading Mr. Pierce, and it is a bubble you won’t want to leave. This is such a fine collection that there’s not a stinker in the bunch…Mr. Pierce’s originality, inventiveness, questing spiritual intelligence and animal fixation aren’t easy to do justice to in the limited space here. But they’re irrefutably good reasons to discover him for yourself.”

In its starred review, Publishers Weekly says: “Pierce’s first short story collection is full of compulsively addictive and delightfully strange fare. Some of the 12 offerings are new, others are culled from the New Yorker, the Oxford American, and elsewhere; each takes a mundane experience and adds an element of the extra weird. In “Shirley Temple Three,” the opening, a mother begrudgingly agrees to hide a cloned prehistoric miniature woolly mammoth in her laundry room as a favor to her son, who is a reality show host. The protagonist of “The Real Alan Gass” becomes jealous when his girlfriend reveals that she’s happily married to another man in her dreams. “Videos of People Falling Down,” which is about just that, is a funny, yet quietly poignant interconnected series of vignettes that showcase characters at their most vulnerable. Echoing an old ghost story, the wicked “Saint Possy” shuttles a couple to their wits end as the skull of a dead possum (maybe) simultaneously haunts and taunts them. In “More Soon,” a dead man, quarantined and shipped around the world on a barge following a highly contagious infection, prompts his brother to contemplate where the soul resides. Pierce’s menagerie of colorful characters equally inspires and amuses. The book is expertly paced (there isn’t a dud in this eclectic bunch) and many of the stories’ endings—some sinister, some melancholic, others heartfelt—prompt momentary reflection, though thankfully not always in ways that are expected.”

Says Library Journal:  “Pierce, whose stories have appeared in The New Yorker and the Atlantic, offers a particularly satisfying first collection, with each story not just a glimpse but a fully developed idea often ending on a somewhat puzzled tone—appropriately, as life doesn’t always easily resolve. A woman cares for the miniature mammoth her feckless TV scientist son has helped clone; a man tries to help his son emerge from his shell by taking him to the cultish Grasshoppers Camp, with uncertain results. VERDICT Quirky but real; for all readers.’

Kirkus Reviews says: “People get uncomfortably close to their primal tendencies in this debut story collection that highlights the quirky and uncanny. Pierce’s stories feel like they’re set within spitting distance of George Saundersville and occupied by residents whose need for normalcy is complicated by the inescapable strangeness of our natures. In “Shirley Temple Three,” the host of a TV show dedicated to reviving extinct animals deposits a surreptitiously freed “dwarf mammoth” with his mother. When the host goes AWOL, his mother is forced to see how well her maternal instincts will work with the creature, and the story becomes funny but surprisingly touching as well. Pierce persistently tests the ways that creatures shed light on our own inscrutability: In “Saint Possy,” an animal skull of unknown provenance unsettles a relationship; in the title story, a zoo exhibit is supposed to help the narrator connect with his girlfriend’s son but does the opposite; and “We of the Present Age” is a historical tale about a naturalist who’s propositioned to present his discovery of dinosaur bones as a lurid and highly unscientific circus attraction. But Pierce can stick with Homo sapiens to convey his perspective on humanity. In “More Soon,” the collection’s strongest story, a man awaits the delivery of his dead brother’s body, which has become entangled in the bureaucracy of an international crisis; Pierce finds the dark humor in officialese (“R has been declared a biological weapon. Will call with more after Thanksgiving”) while exploring the more sober tension of seeking closure after loss. Not every story is successfully provocative—”Felix Not Arriving” is a relatively conventional squabble-during-a-family-visit tale, while “Videos of People Falling Down” is an overly loose set of sketches questioning our urge to mock others’ online foibles. But Pierce clearly has talent to burn. A promising debut that studies hard-luck types from new and provocative perspectives.”

“A debut collection that reads like the work of a much older, established fiction master. The stories in Pierce’s book explore the ordinary in the otherworldly, the surreal in the mundane, and the results are stunning and unexpected….There isn’t a weak story in Hall of Small Mammals, and Pierce is an endlessly incisive and engaging writer. It’s a book full of wisdom and emotion, with stories that explore what it means to live and die in a world filled with invisible things,” says NPR.org

When is it available?

Pierce’s intriguing book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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