Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Knopf, 2013)
Full disclosure: this book was provided to me free of charge by Amazon Vine.
I have a confession to make. I’ve been known to tear up at the odd film now and again, and certain songs can get me sniffling. Okay, both of those things are understatements. And even TV shows can do it. You know the episode of The Vicar of Dibley where [SPOILER ALERT] Hugo and Alice get hitched, so David is the guy ending up sitting there listening to Geraldine’s joke? And at the very end of the sequence, he just looks at her and says, “Stay.”? [/SPOILER ALERT] I bawl like a baby. Every time. Hell, I’m tearing up now just thinking about it. But that sort of thing doesn’t really ever happen to me with books. I can remember, in forty-odd years of reading, crying at maybe three or four books. I can now add “The New Veteran,” the penultimate story in Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, to the list.
I read Russell’s debut story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, not long after it came out and, to be frank, was blown away. I gave it five stars. I’m not as stingy with five-star book reviews as I am with five-star movie reviews; I’ve given less than forty five-star movie reviews in my lifetime (and revised at least two of those downward that I can recall off the top of my head), whereas since the start of my current spreadsheet (June 17, 2007) and factoring in some other books I remember from before that (e.g. St. Lucy’s), I’ve got fifty-four five-star books sitting in front of me right now. But that’s still a very small percentage of my overall reading; that’s fifty-four five-star books out of 2,325 books read, give or take. (2.3%, for those who don’t want to do the math.) Six authors have received more than one five-star review—Stephen King, Major Ragain, Catherynne Valente, Kathe Koja (the current runaway winner with four five-star reviews), Martin McDonagh, and now Karen Russell. Because Vampires in the Lemon Grove shows me something I’m not sure it ever occurred to me Karen Russell could do—she got better. If St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is “ a miracle”, as Ben Marcus asserts on its cover (and I was in 2007, and still am in 2013, inclined to agree), then Vampires in the Lemon Grove is, what a choir of angels singing in exultation? Perhaps.
Those of you who have read St. Lucy’s will feel right at home here. The magical-realism factor is a little more front-and-center here than it was there; stories like “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”, in which a scarecrow made in the image of a bullied boy becomes a symbol of atonement for one of his tormentors, or “The New Veteran”, in which a tattooed landscape of Iraq becomes the means by which a massage therapist changes the dreams of a Sergeant, couldn’t work without the magical-realist mechanisms that drive them. (This does mean, of course, that readers who are allergic to Jorge Luis Borges, Alice Hoffman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, etc., are going to be just as turned off by Karen Russell; tread lightly if magical realism is not your gig.) But, perhaps paradoxically, it also feels more ingrained into Russell’s world than it did in St. Lucy’s; the Wisconsin winter of “The New Veteran” seems like the most natural place in the world for magic to happen, and let’s face it, if there’s a more mundane part of the world than Wisconsin in the middle of winter, I can’t think of it. These stories, like many of the others in the collection, are of a piece with St. Lucy’s; the quality is solid through and through. And then there are the stories that are even better. “Proving Up”, even the ARC I’m working from (which like most ARCs is shot through with those bloody TKs; I don’t even have an acknowledgements page so I know what magazines to thank for printing these wonderful nuggets of perfection) mentions that this story, the best in the collection and, arguably, the best short story I’ve encountered since Richard Christian Matheson’s “Red” (which I first read in the late eighties), won the National Magazine Award for Fiction in 2012 when it was still titled “The Hox River Window”. It’s a stunning piece, a period story centered around the quirky clause in the Homestead Act requiring that the prospective homeowner have, in the house that they have built, at least one glass window. (This clause is not fiction; the Homestead Act did indeed require homesteaders who headed west to claim their 160 acres to build shelter that had at least one glass window.) And it’s better than anything in St. Lucy’s, and I’m not quite sure, still, how Ms. Russell managed that.
There’s a terrifying possibility here. In the horse racing world, when you get a really, really good three-year-old, one who could be a world-beater, you’ll often hear trainers saying “we haven’t seen the bottom of him/her yet.” The hoss hasn’t really faced the competition to really dig deep and open up the lungs and uncoil the beast within. I made the assumption, incorrectly and somewhat ridiculously, that because St. Lucy’s was such an incredible collection, that we’d seen the bottom of Karen Russell. Now I know I was wrong—and I strongly suspect that even with this collection, we haven’t. Which makes me hope we won’t be waiting another seven years for her next collection. Buy this for “Proving Up” and “The New Veteran”; the other six stories in this collection are the very delectable icing on their cake. If this doesn’t top my best reads of the year list, I will be very surprised. *****