By Michelle Reale
Burning River, 2010
Friday nights we all went out to dinner as a family. The Pike Family Restaurant had “homestyle” cooking, dull wood paneling and accepted cash only. . . The five of us squeezed into a booth and held the large sticky menus in front of us like we were reading for pleasure.
As very short fiction moved from its boutique, periphery status towards the center of literary action, did anyone anticipate the rescue and recovery of the domestic story? Probably not, otherwise we wouldn’t be struggling against labels like flash or sudden that promise breathless tricks and mind bending facility, but do nothing to prepare us for the soulful narratives of family, class, and place that come to us from writers like Michelle Reale. The twelve brief stories in Reale’s new collection called Natural Habitat, from Burning River Press, have all been published previously. You might have come across two or three, recognized their intersections and thought, Oh, Michelle is worrying a theme. Deliberately, each of these stories is like a house in a dream-faded neighborhood where only children and dogs are happy, and even then just briefly.
As an object, Natural Habitat is irresistible. The cover of the 5x5 inch paperback features a tinted image of a wretched building, providing the first glimpse into the fictive neighborhood that Reale builds for us, story by story. The community is inspired by her childhood memories as she explains in the introduction: “That house, that neighborhood and the blocks surrounding it which included most of my relatives, the few friends I had, our parish and our school, were my entire life.” And so we might brace for nostalgia, but instead we get something gothic, the darkness of the lost and losing:
The older son swats at the bat with the broom, but the bat flies with ease, high and then low. Jesus hangs on his cross and watches. One by one the children leave the room. Dinner will be set for them somewhere.
--From “And She Flew”
Reale gives us emotional images, free of pretense and excuse. Her children are worried children. Her adults have moved past worry into a world with only one mystery left. Food binds and divides. Cigarettes are desperate flags. Sexuality and cancer are equal specters, hovering over every conversation. From the claustrophobia of the first story to the uncertain release of the final, moments accumulate across these very short narratives to create the feel of a novelistic world while shaking off the mannered dreams of conventional forms.