Emily Fridlund grew up in Minnesota and teaches at Cornell University. “History of Wolves,” her first novel, was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Now “Catapult,” her debut story collection and winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in short fiction, is earning high praise.
Although Minnesota locations — the Twin Cities, the North Shore — appear in these 11 stories, “Catapult” mainly deals with the dark, interior places of the heart. Fridlund’s unsettled characters aren’t always easy to like. Contemptuous of others, they need to control lovers, husbands and friends in order to feel better about themselves. Her dramas spring from this need.
In “Expecting,” a husband and now a grandfather confesses that his wife “could take your skin off with one glance, she was that excruciating. … She could call you to her with one finger.” After the wife leaves, his newborn granddaughter assumes the wife’s role in the house. The preternatural, world-weary baby chides her caretakers, the grandfather, the lazy, teenage son and the son’s girlfriend. “C’mon,” the baby says when they’re slow to please her. By the time she’s 6 months old, her demands grow. “Come on,” she orders imperiously, as though the slovenly guardians must improve their ways or she’ll do something about it.
In the title story, a 14-year-old hovers between what an adolescent might know and what adults already know. If she can discover the latter, she’ll control others the way she orders around her insecure friends. In the woods, she makes them hang upside down like bats in trees, “vampires.” “I converted them all,” she says, the piece being a critique of religious faith and a coming-of-age story. “Those girls climbed two stories up a pine tree when I told them.” With a stick, the narrator “could touch those beet-red hands (the ones who couldn’t keep them crossed over their chests).”
Other stories continue the motif of control and subservience. In “Marco Polo,” a character attempts to reorder, and thus to control, his wife’s sleep patterns. In “Old House,” two students exploit an elderly lady. As her health declines, they take more risks, even making love in front of her.
“Lake Arcturus Lodge,” which beautifully evokes the area around Grand Marais in the 1920s, provides welcome relief from the neuroses of modern life.
As praiseworthy as these stories are, and they are very good, I have reservations about them. Fridlund must know that these days even Polish Americans shouldn’t be stereotyped. Yet in “Expecting,” there he is, the sloppy, Velveeta-eating Darrell Gryzbowski with his “big body,” “sullen American pride” and unpronounceable name. His son’s feckless girlfriend pronounces the name “Gitowski.” Fridlund might also want to brighten her future stories a bit.
But now this confession: As I read her often dreamlike work, Fridlund’s narrative twists, arresting images and seductive prose began controlling me. It’s that difficult to resist her stories. She’s a remarkable writer enjoying a great year. For a few hours one dark afternoon, I was thoroughly enthralled by her book.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.
By: Emily Fridlund.
Publisher: Sarabande Books, 199 pages, $16.95.