The Strange Suburban Underbelly of Eric Puchner’s ‘Last Day on Earth’
At some point or another, everyone needs to come to a certain realization about suburbia: it can be creepy, and it can be weird. More importantly, it lends itself to a certain flavor of absurdity, sometimes referred to specifically as “domestic absurdism.” The traditional stereotype of the American suburb has houses all matching in size and shape, matching evenly-trimmed hedges and fences, and the classic American Dream-inspired family, a heterosexual couple with two children, and an animal companion. But beneath every picture-perfect home, there is a layer of worms, and it is the job of Eric Puchner’s newest collection of stories, Last Day on Earth (Scribner’s, February 2017), to expose and examine those worms. Although its scope is limited almost exclusively to the suburbs in contemporary times, Puchner still manages to curate some extraordinary scenarios and paint well-defined characters with skillful craft.
At its core, the collection of nine stories all take different spins on the traditional coming-of-age narrative. Of the stories, five feature children as protagonists. It is here that we often see well-curated scenarios that lend themselves to the weirdness that Puchner thrives in. Take, for example, “Right This Instant”. In this story, Josh, a 12-year old, convinces himself one night that his mother is actually a robot. He is given hallucinogens by a neighbor the next day in an effort to calm him down, but instead, Joshua has an extremely negative reaction. In reality, none of these things alone are intrinsically interesting— a bad trip, an irrational thought nesting itself in the back of your mind, or even contempt fora step-parent. However, the skill with which Puchner weaves them together creates a convincing tale of the desperation of a young man who is at odds with the world as he understands it.
On the other hand, the four remaining stories create profiles of often desperate adults who must come to grips with their own lives and limitations. Here Puchner’s style feels a bit more natural, and we are also drawn into even more absurd scenarios, including the mask adorned by “Aunt Mess” Jess as she assumes the role of her sister in more ways than one on Halloween in the story “Mothership.” At times, again, absurdism comes in the form of well-juxtaposed otherwise-bland elements. Kevin, the protagonist of “Heavenland,” illustrates this well. It’s not at all strange to hear that Kevin is at a party, which he did not at first realize was a coke party. Nor is it a stretch to imagine Kevin bumping a line of coke at said party. What forces Kevin into the third dimension is that his infant son, Arrow, is in the next room over as he does so. This story, as most of the adult-centered stories do, creates a helpless atmosphere of defeat around these characters who are still far from grown.
At times, too, Puchner’s ability shines through the conceit of the entire story; in “Beautiful Monsters,” arguably the best story in the collection, two permanently prepubescent ‘perennials’ are exposed, for the first time in their lives, to a ‘senescent’—a human father, whose species is extinct in this far-future world. In this story, Puchner’s style is at its best. The protagonist’s voice, the atmosphere of the world he constructs, and the moments of absurdism all complement each other nearly perfectly to paint an empathetic portrait of this wanderer, this stranger—this senescent, this human, as the protagonist watches the man age and die after forming an attachment to him.
For Puchner, then, it is his form which often dominates narrative in his writing. This form— combined with, at times, positively illuminating curation of otherwise banal situations and absurdist twists—makes Puchner’s second collection more than worthwhile for anyone looking to see the raw messiness inherent in our experience as constantly developing humans (or, as “Beautiful Monsters” would have it, senescents).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Besides Last Day on Earth, Eric Puchner is the author of the story collection Music Through the Floor, a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and the novel Model Home, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, and won a California Book Award. His short stories and personal essays have appeared in GQ, Granta, Tin House, Zoetrope, Narrative, Glimmer Train, Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. He has received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2015 he was awarded the Jeannette Haien Ballard Writer’s Prize, given annually to writers “of proven excellence in poetry or prose.” An assistant professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, he lives in Baltimore with his wife, the novelist Katharine Noel, and their two children.
Featured Image: Suburbs of a Paranoiac Critical Town, Afternoon on the Outskirts of European History, Salvador Dali, 1936.