By Joanna Ruocco
Reviewed by Kari Larsen
Tarpaulin Sky Press, May 2010
Paperback, 144 pp., $14
A collection of short fiction by Joanna Ruocco, Man’s Companions was released last year from Tarpaulin Sky Press. With each successive story—each one economical as well as full of disparate, surprising elements—a sense of alienation through constant comparison and evaluation of relationships is reinforced with ferocious momentum. As pleasurable as they are individually, their power is cumulative.
This, from "Snake," is among the most deftly illustrated of man’s companions—the Cosmo critique writ large in the evolutionary scheme:
When you go to bed with a man, you should wear natural scents like pine, rain or grass. This will associate you in his mind with the out-of-doors, with the wilderness. You will seem inviolate to him, even as you assume various mind-blowing sexual positions. The man will think of waterfalls. Otter ponds. Beautiful places he’s been and wants to take you. The man, he rolls over and looks into your eyes and says, "There is a hawk nest in a red pine." He says, "I know a secret beach." He drives you to the pearly coast at dawn, and twenty-seven humpbacked whales breech as the sun rises over the ocean. I don’t remind men of nature. I bring a man to bed and he rolls over and looks into my eyes. He’s like, "I really want hot wings. Don’t you have a craving for hot wings?"
Man’s phenomenological relationship to its neighbors is explored with the clinical ecstasy of a deranged sociologist in these epiphanies freed from pretense. The amassment of individual, isolated stories works to create the feeling that if all these people are thinking this way—and Ruocco is consummately multiphonic, rendering every voice distinctly—they must be the rule to which the reader is the exception. At something like five pages per story, there is plenty in this volume, and it is as varied as the textures of the animals after which the stories are named: "Small Sharks," "Strays," "Blood," "Marzipan Lambs."
Man’s Companions is Ruocco’s second work, following her 2009 debut, The Mothering Coven, from Ellipses Press. The Mothering Coven, about a group of witches told in the tongue of their insular sisterhood, is a dense waif at little over a hundred pages and makes English gloriously unrecognizable. There she demonstrates her capacity for making an obscure concoction out of mundane ingredients with phantasmic results. But Man’s Companions should provide the audience Ruocco deserves with maximum access. In Man’s Companions, the biochemically-enhanced acrobatics come from perspective, imbrication, and juxtaposition; in The Mothering Coven they come from language alone. Man’s Companions proves Ruocco is a storyteller.
Individually, her real achievements are "Canary," "Unicorns," "Snake," "Lemmings," and "White Buffalo," and the most charming sentence—from "Unicorns"—characterizes the act of writing as sitting in front of the computer "doing small, surreptitious things to my body." Het writing certainly has this effect on the reader, and for this she deserves her recently incurred Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize from FC2 for the manuscript Another Governess/the Least Blacksmith—a Diptych. With Noemi Press’ release of her chapbook, A Compendium of Domestic Incidents, there is almost enough of her work in circulation to whet the appetite Man’s Companions will inspire—for now.
Visit Tarpaulin Sky Press on the web.
Kari Larsen is Production Designer at Seven Kitchens Press. Her fiction has
appeared in Sein und Werden and
the Bicycle Review, and her
poetry in Delirious Hem's Seam Ripper series and Gloom Cupboard. She
maintains a column at HarrisburgMagazine.com.
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