'I am my own housewife, my own breadwinner. I make lunches and change lightbulbs. I kiss bruises and kill copperheads from the backyard creek with a steel hoe."
So begins "Housewifely Arts" -- the first of 12 powerful stories in Megan Mayhew Bergman's outstanding debut collection, "Birds of a Lesser Paradise." It's a tale of a woman who kisses and kills in the same line, who raises her young son, Ike ("It's hard being a single mom, but it's easier than being a miserable wife"), and tries to get by as best as she can. Bergman's life-toughened characters face domestic challenges in everyday life, accompanied usually with keen insight and compassion. (On Ike: "He is sweet and unassuming. He does not yet know he will be picked on for being undersized, for growing facial hair 10 years too late.")
Dogs, birds and other animals intermingle in people's lives throughout the book (the author lives on a farm in Vermont with her veterinarian husband), even becoming characters themselves -- in one case an antagonist -- and causing pivotal consequences for the people with which they have contact. In "Saving Face," a young woman veterinarian, who has lost most of her upper lip while caring for a wolf-hybrid, faces the world anew, her relationship with her fiancé in jeopardy. Here Bergman establishes a metaphor: "There were no promises, no obligations between living things, she thought."
The narrative in these stories glows with a deliberate and distinctive pacing. In "Another Story She Won't Believe," an alcoholic, split from her husband, estranged from her adult daughter, is at home alone during an ice storm. The power fails, and she receives a call asking her to walk through the storm to where she works as a lemur rescue volunteer. Here, as in most of these stories, the characters are usually lonely, troubled women, and Bergman places them into their settings and defines their personalities with biting and precise language: "I smoke like Bette Davis. No one could smoke a cigarette sadder than Bette Davis."
The title story is a great tale about an adult daughter and her aging father who run a bird-watching business in the swamp. The daughter describes her dad: "His laugh was unmistakable, almost an affront." In "The Right Company," the protagonist -- another woman whose marriage has failed -- remarks on an oil painting of the Virgin Mary: "She was street-vendor beautiful and reminded me of Donna Reed."
Bergman's stores are well-crafted, unpretentious, and filled with memorable, empathetic characters who reveal their pain, anguish and emotional upheavals in bracing situations, but conclude, mostly -- although it's not always pretty -- with survival: "There are no perfect rescues. You go down with your own ship."
Jim Carmin, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Portland, Ore.