FICTION: Christopher Merkner holds a funhouse mirror up to sturdy and stouthearted Midwestern Scandinavians. If readers are honest with themselves, they’ll recognize what they see.
If you’re a Midwestern Scandinavian (and since you’re reading these pages there’s a fair chance you are), you’ll recognize some of your people in Christopher Merkner’s debut short-story collection, “The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic.” But be warned, these are not the Oles and Lenas you know from Lake Wobegon.
The 17 stories here are wondrous strange. Husbands and wives, parents and children, they all come together in surreal and dreamlike ways. They are a mostly befuddled cast, pushed by the absurd circumstances of their lives into remarkable situations that they can neither comprehend nor extricate themselves from.
In “Time in Norrmalmstorg,” a father takes his young son to a birthday party; toy swords and guns are handed out at the door, play-violence is rampant and encouraged. The father, who does not approve, confronts the hosts. What transpires is a spate of real-life violence that belies any common sense or decency.
In “We Have Them to Raise Us,” the longest and best story in the collection, a young married couple arrange a birthday party that will reunite the wife with 36 of her former lovers. The husband is reluctant, to say the least, but he goes along with her wishes. Subterfuge becomes the rule of the game and it’s not long before the husband realizes: “My specific roots are northern Midwest, settlers near Green Bay, and while we know our way around the labyrinth of deception, because we are half the time misleading ourselves, we are not actually well prepared genetically for the confined chambers of overt and sustained lying.” He sabotages the party, but the inevitable dissolution of his marriage comes to pass all the same. It’s a story as preposterous as it is true, as funny as it is sad.
Indeed, there is much sadness and unhappiness in Merkner’s stories, so much that it might come across as unbearable if not for the author’s great wit, which saves his stories from both their melancholy weight and their strangeness, and which is on display on nearly every page.
As with most debut collections, some of Merkner’s stories are stronger than others. At times the tone or method is too alienating. But the cumulative effect of “The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic” is profound and terrifically fun. No doubt this will not be the last we hear from this Scandamerican.
Minneapolis writer Peter Geye is the author of “Safe From the Sea” and “The Lighthouse Road.”