Families Among Us

by Blake Kimzey
Black Lawrence Press. 2014

Quirk is hard to do well. Magic realism and absurdist tropes can (and often do) serve as tools to avoid the exploration necessary to get inside characters’ heads. Because of this, I’m often on guard when I encounter quirky books like Blake Kimzey’s Black Lawrence Press chapbook, Families Among Us. It’s a neat collection of six short stories that’s strange from page one. In the first story, “A Family Among Us,” a family of four crawls out of the ocean, set on making a home, once again, on land; several of the following pieces acquaint us with characters who are animals (or almost animals)—people who get stuck, like Gregor Samsa, in communities that don’t know what to do with them.

I’m happy to say, in all cases, that Families Among Us takes my defenses apart. Without ever resorting to one-to-one symbolic resonances, or hyperbolic strangeness, these stories strike a balance that leaves me feeling both recognized, and impossibly far from home. I also end up wondering how Kimzey walks this line so well.

I think, at least in part, the book’s peculiar magic relies on a deep engagement with the natural world.

The boy, in nothing but a cloth diaper and a bonnet to shade him from the sun, held his small hands at his sides and slithered off of the patchwork quilt. There was rich loamy soil between the blades of grass and the boy found it and buried his mouth in the dirt and ate.

In this story, “Tunneling,” a worm-like boy is born, growing at an accelerated rate until, finally, he disappears into the mountains, pulled by a place that may be more accepting of him than our human one.

Similarly, in “The Skylight,” an American in Paris falls in love with a Muslim woman who is also an owl.

She faced him and stepped out of her burqa; his instinct was to turn away, but he didn’t. Her arms, legs, and torso were covered in a light down of brindle feathers, a beautiful plumage that camouflaged her breasts and everything underneath.

The story reminds me to think about ways women (and burqas) are fetishized; I also leave it thinking of how we all crave a connection with the biological, the animalistic, because it’s what makes us feel alive. If bizarre on the surface, these characters still relate with nature in a way that feels emotionally logical, full of a comprehensible longing.

I suspect Kimzey’s characters want the same things I do, and so these stories put me in an important bind. They make me feel weird, and the weirder I feel, the more connected with the book’s community I become. The word “family” makes me think of the word “home,” so it makes sense that, though romantic love and individual alienation do play roles here, they are not the chapbook’s psychic center. Instead, the book’s people reveal themselves, again and again, as nodes in a larger organism—the weird whole of Kimzey’s quirky biome.

The characters in Families Among Us are always negotiating their rightful places in this biome; one of the collection’s dominant themes is the tendency to leave this life for one promising a different kind of hope. In “A Family Among Us,” the two children abandon their difficult land-life, trying to return to the comfort of a past beneath the ocean’s surface. The owl woman from “The Skylight” disappears into the forest, her father with her; the beetle boy from “Up and Away,” another animal-like character whose alienation feels both familiar and devastating, disappears into the sky: Naked, the boy darted up and away and his family followed him until he was a dot in the sky, the way a helium balloon rises and then fades into the expanse. We’re left with his ordinary family—people who continue on, of course, but not as they were before.

So where do Kimzey’s characters go? We are often left to imagine their destinations and outcomes, but we don’t have to imagine the loneliness of searching for a place that feels like home. Perhaps that’s why, in the chapbook’s final story, “And Finally The Tragedy,” the prophet-like boy at the story’s center turns the community narrator back around: He started walking through the field toward tow, the white church steeple rising over an umbrella of trees. We silently followed in procession. Even as the book remains, start to finish, at a pleasingly odd level of partial-resolution, engaging me with unnamed characters and situations that feel near to allegorical, for me it delivers this simple truth: though the forest is always possible, the town is, and always will be, what we have.Photo by picccus

Natalie Mesnard