Lydia Peelle’s debut story collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing assembles eight rough-cut narrative gems, of which two have already garnered Pushcart Prizes and one more an O. Henry Short Story Award. Not bad for a fresh voice on the scene. A native of Boston, Peelle now lives in Nashville, the city center of an agrarian swath of Tennessee where most of the tales are based.
Despite comparisons to Faulkner, it would be misleading to assign her characters the expected deep-rooted longing for the “Old South.” A sense of bewilderment, and even depression at the current state of affairs, is palpable, yet the root of the problem lies in the fact that no one — from Jack Welch the taxidermist to Cole, a troubled young man on the road with a traveling fair — can shape any answers to our modern-day predicament. Their evoked remembrance for the not-so distant past is idealized, such as the creek bank described in “Phantom Pain” as “littered with beer cans and busted sneakers, fast food bags and old condoms.”
Which isn’t to say the olden days were any easier. In the first story, “Mule Killers,” the narrator gives voice to his father as a young man, describing how the simplest path of existence is to deny one’s deepest desires in favor of cold, hard reality: “He is trying hard to keep certain things stuffed deep in his chest: things like fear, sadness, and uncertainty. Lately he has become secretive about the things he loves. His love is fierce and full, but edged in guilt.”
Peelle sketches her protagonists with sharp precision. In “Sweethearts of the Rodeo,” she captures the exact moment on the cusp of adolescence when two girls might take note of sex and death, but aren’t yet devastated by life’s cruel forces. The best friends spend their days on a horse ranch under the not-so-watchful eye of a philandering caretaker, and Peelle sets the scene by listing the childhood games they play with the ponies on the farm, contrasted with an rueful foreshadowing: “It was the summer we smoked our first cigarettes, the summer you broke your arm. It was the last summer, the last one before boys.”
Death is everywhere on the farm, from a “half decayed doe” to a “stillborn foal wrapped in a rotting amniotic sac” to floating rats, “bellies distended with poison and dying of thirst.” When one of the ponies dies suddenly, the narrator recalls dry eyes upon discovering their other playmate: “I remember that we weren’t even very sad.” The story conjures a collective nostalgia while fixing parallels between the animal world and humans’ slipshod treatment of one another, a recurring theme through the book. Though Peelle’s adults are just as skillfully drawn, her depiction of such a formative period for two young girls puts the entire arc of her characters’ existence into focus.