In order to tackle a good literary work, I need to be hungry. And I can usually judge what I’m reading by how it affects that hunger. Sometimes a story collection forces me to set it down after reading a story, too full of images and emotion to continue. Other times, I lightly snack my way through the whole thing. The strength and beauty of the stories in Joanna Ruocco’s Man’s Companions pushed me to devour the entirety of the collection in a few days despite being achingly full from the rich, dense prose.
The title of the collection suggests something encyclopedic in nature—some sort of narrative-based listing of things serving as companions to man. Ruocco titled the stories with names of different animals, a list extending through the narratives of both normal— “Canary,” “Lemmings,” “Frog,” and more fanciful like “Flying Monkeys” and “Unicorns.” These work in subtle ways by using the animals in the stories while examining different facets of society serving as a different sort of companion such as failure, ignorance, or over-confidence in the characters. In “Small Sharks,” an annoyed husband reads imperfect sentences to his wife from a novel about raising humans underwater. She fails to comprehend what makes a sentence imperfect just as the husband fails to picture living underwater. The wife however does not suffer from the same lack of imagination, she thinks, “There would be round windows with a million tons of pitch-black water pressing against them and occasionally small sharks with light-producing organelles in their skin would pass back and forth, leaving milky streamers.” In this brief story, Ruocco captures the divide between a husband and wife through small details as if small sharks fed at their relationship allowing something to open up between them.
The stories, even when they’re quite short—many only a page or two long, attack with an encompassing intensity, raw and piercing, leaving little room for bearings or breath. Ruocco’s lyric prose pulses and resonates. In the dream-like story “Snake,” two friends stop to sleep as they drive through the desert. While out of the car, the narrator observes a flow of bats springing out from crack in a rock “like someone just opened a bat-filled fire hydrant.” Just as these bats flow out—too many to count or control, Ruocco piles on observations and details from her narrator as she thinks about her friend Janie’s snakeskin purse—”It is possible that red snakes exist; they live in the redder rocks of the desert, the red rocks to the south, or else the snakes are from Mars.” The narrator’s thoughts pour from her prose, forcing the reader to react to the onslaught and find a way to adapt.
Though titled with the names of animals, you can’t read the stories looking only for the creature named in the title and the different manifestations that can surface. As in “Snake” where the red snakeskin covered purse, the narrator’s boyfriend’s member, and a translucent dream-snake all show themselves cloaked by the thought of the snake. The title serves as in introduction into the ideas we have about that creature and trigger all the societal, mythic, and unconscious thoughts of that animal. Then Ruocco tells a story apart from but relying on that animal or idea.
In the only story in the collection told by a third person narrator, “White Buffalo,” Ruocco breaks up the narrative with numbered sections. In comparison to the shorter stories, it feels epic, covering a cast of quirky characters that run an elementary school. Many of the sections follow Ms. Mencken as she interacts with co-workers at the school and cares for her ailing father at home, who is still abusive even at an advanced age. Ruocco constructs absurd characters, such as the body-building principal talking of his negative space white buffalo tattoo, that come to resemble reality more closely than traditional fiction. For instance, after Principal Baxter assumes his position, he runs out of a meeting with the teachers and tears a drinking fountain from the wall, saying “There will be no more stooping to the level of children [. . .] I have ordered a water cooler for the Teachers-Lounge.” No principal behaves like that, but he might think of doing it and, in the exaggeration of his and other characters, Ruocco demonstrates not only how strange humanity is but also what happens when people allow their veils of politeness to fall. She pointedly examines what sits underneath those veils, divorcing characters from our ideas of falsity and societal mores.
In “Marzipan Lambs,” a woman interacts with the owner of a bakery, both of them losing or having lost their mothers. The two rely on each other for strength. The baker gives her a marzipan lamb week for her mother and she takes it even though the mother has passed. These lambs fill her fridge at home, drying out over time. The narrator can’t bring herself to tell him as she knows that their mutual struggle helps him to deal with his mother back in Italy, asking to go with the angels.
Powerful and compact, the stories, like marzipan lambs must be broken down slowly even if devoured quickly. Like those dried ears of marzipan lambs, they must to sucked on and wondered at before they dissolve into understanding. The story collection presents short tales that pleasantly sated my hunger. Yet, every time I set the book down or even closed the cover, I had to go back for more, unable to tear myself completely away. These stories by Ruocco necessitate time and re-reading, making this short volume well worth exploration.