Ryan Kenealy’s debut collection of short stories, Animals in Peril, spans the Midwest, with some stories taking place in Chicago. Settings in these stories become characters in themselves as the narrator in “Driftless” explains: “Heading through Illinois, all of the trees, the plants, everything are planted neatly in rows. Nothing is wild, feral maybe, but not wild.”
“Feral” is a word that also could describe many of Kenealy’s characters, domesticated individuals who find themselves in the uncontrollable wild of their lives, they realize the grip, the containment, that they believed they had is slipping away or is already gone.
This collection of eight stories begins with a convulsing shih tzu and ends with a typhoon. Each story is accompanied by a black-and-white watercolor painting by the author, which adds to the unpredictability of the stories. You might think you know how these stories will go, but Kenealy uses the natural world to upset expectations.
The natural world forces itself upon Kenealy’s characters, forces them to a state of awareness that is shatteringly clear and uncomfortable. In the opening story “Resuscitation of a Shih Tzu,” the narrator contemplates his relationship with his girlfriend, Ann, while watching her shih tzu. He reflects on their time working for the circus in Chicago, which leads to Ann leaving for three months and the narrator being in charge of the shih tzu. The dog reminds the narrator of Ann’s absence, her choices, and his mistakes, even more so when Ann returns. After taking the convulsing dog to the vet, the narrator thinks, “The world does not work this way, she is not being punished, the shih tzu’s heart is no divine message. The shih tzu’s heart failed because it was hot, because, I neglected the thing, not for what she’s thinking right now.”
A lot of Kenealy’s characters have time to think about their mistakes and actions, like the narrator in “Resuscitation of a Shih Tzu.” The young narrator in “Flea” is especially aware of his actions, which are sometimes violent, but he is more upset by how people view his actions. After punching a boy, Tom, early on in the story, the narrator reflects on that moment, on how he was aware of the “impulse” of those watching the fight:
I wasn’t trying to make a public statement about not messing with me.
But there was more. The fact that I could
feel the impulse of the crowd scared me.
I could let these people press me
into something I didn’t want to be,
something for their pleasure.
That disgusted me.
The narrator wants control, as do many of Kenealy’s characters. Despite his parents’ hopes and what other people think, he befriends Tom after punching him and invites him to partner with him in a teenage business venture. By the end of the story, after hoping to make honest money partnering with the optimistic flea market vendor, Qasi, the narrator, realizes Tom has betrayed him, who in turn betrays Qasi. The narrator finds himself just as alone as when the story started, and still without control. In this story, the natural world assumes the shape of angry gulls hovering over the narrator, who cries because “it was the only thing that felt sort of good.” These are characters with a type of animal awareness of their actions and the world around them, which makes it just as heartbreaking, maybe even more so, when they know exactly what type of situation they’re in.
Reading Animals in Peril is a delightful experience for those who appreciate the craftsmanship of words. Kenealy chooses his words wisely and methodically, using words like “squiggled,” “hornswaggled,” and “atomized” to help lend personality to the narrators and make the stories jump off the page. It’s no surprise that Kenealy’s stories have appeared in publications like Open City, Another Chicago Magazine, and Bridge. The short fiction form is alive and well in Chicago, and it will be interesting to see what writing Kenealy will produce in the future.
August 2014, Curbside Splendor Publishing
$12, paperback, 154 pages
—Reviewed by Lyndsie Manusos