3.Avatar Review
     A Review of Poetry, Prose, and Art - Summer 2001

How Animals Mate, by Daniel Mueller
(Sewanee Writer's Series/Overlook Press, 1999)

Reviewed by Steve Harris

Like Flannery O'Conner before him, short-story writer Daniel Mueller deals in the American grotesque. But unlike O'Conner, who was grounded by her Roman Catholicism, Mueller delivers a moral universe more on edge, characters unsure of just where to turn. The empathy is there, but no where will you find a character like Tarwater, from O'Conner's "Violent Bear it Away," eyes burning like a prophet before the sleeping Children of God. But there are glimmerings.

As for the characters that populate Mueller's literary world, what a crew! A bunch of porno watching peeping-tom teenagers ("How Animals Mate"); a homosexual (dying of a swallowed fish hook) gripping his lover's torso (shades of "Fargo") as he sinks, chanting Native American prayers, to the bottom of a Wisconsin lake ("Ice-Breaking"); a nude dancing poet ("Birds"); a lonely fat man who likes to let a pet tarantula bite his nipple ("Torturing Creatures at Night"); and a group of death rock kids that truly updates Alex and his droogs for the Millennium (P.M.R.C.).

Each of these disturbing, funny stories are well crafted, and it makes it difficult to settle on examples that illustrate Mueller's vision, without feeling you've neglected some jewel. In "P.M.R.C." ("Parent's Music Resource Center"), Mueller supplies us with a comedy of the blackest sort. A group of teenagers, who go by names like "Sperm," and "Penis," are cruising around, bombing people with various home created bombs. During the course of the evening Tommy ("Penis") supplies a steady stream of info as to the world in which he moves: there is more than a strong hint of incest with his mother; an incredible barrage of music song titles that seems straight out of the Marilyn Manson catalogue ("Fetus in a Bag"; "I Want to Blow Your Head Off"; "Give Me an Ax"); and finally a fateful rendevous with his ninth grade girlfriend, Mona. Earlier in the day, Tommy and his friends evidently performed a "mock abortion" as part of a skit at their high school. What they aborted before the hooting crowd in the gym were Iron Crosses, Nazi regalia, hand grenade casings, etc. Mona is upset by this, since she feels Tommy's making fun of her own recent abortion. But they make up and get ready for sex, when along comes the another boy (with shotgun). Mona is fatally wounded, but as she dies she seeks to give birth to her baby, which turns out to be her stomach (Tommy helping of course). In the land of free appetites this comes as strong stuff. My head's still spinning, but as social commentary and/or modern allegory, it smokes. As a final irony, Tommy is called to Washington to testify that violent music lyrics have had no effect on him or his outlook on life, and that Mona's death "is nobody's fault." Yeah.

In "Zero" Mueller turns things down a bit, but I think it one of the best stories in the collection. Shelly, a waitress, is asked by Zero, the gay owner of the restaurant, to come upstairs to look at his recently deceased lover (AIDS). Shelly, a single mom (there are lot of single mothers in Mueller's stories) doesn't want to see a dead body. But Zero insists, because not only is his lover dead, but he's ruined. Apparently his lover bankrupted him. Shelly's somewhat comfortable existence is now over, Zero will soon be laying her off in the dead of winter. She finds herself reflecting over her own years of casual sex and alcoholism. She thinks of her son at home watching Letterman, the new change now entering her life, she looks out into the harbor, the boats there, considers the choices that will soon be facing her. But the reader knows, as dark as her circumstances are, that the love for her son will keep her going:

I look at the rusty hulls if one boat were to sink, would it drag the others down, too? and turn to wonder at the lights in town.
There is hope in Mueller's universe, but finding the direction can be difficult in a darkened moral landscape.


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