In “The Dark and Other Love Stories,” her second collection, Deborah Willis delivers exemplary models of the form. Set in various Canadian towns, the stories feature a broad range of characters, each portrayed in strikingly confident prose.

There are Holocaust survivors, millennials vying to travel to Mars and a prostitute who demands that her client buy her a kitten. A married couple circumvent a hole in their living room floor instead of addressing it or making repairs. Winged creatures frequently make an appearance. In Willis’ stories, character is often revealed by the way people interact with animals.

In “Todd,” Eddie, a recovering addict, “woke from alcohol-fueled dreams” to find a crow “on the edge of the mattress.” Initially repulsed, he warms to the bird when he recognizes its central sorrow: “The […] thing was hungry. And Eddie remembered being hungry.” Thus begins a brief time in Eddie’s life when the crow — a female whom he names Todd — becomes a de facto roommate. When Todd lays an egg, then abandons it, Eddie “held it against his heart” in an effort to keep it warm. When Eddie refuses to eat, he becomes Todd’s charge, “[opening] his mouth and let[ting] her feed him. Her beak knocked his teeth and he tasted her bad, wild breath.”

Willis specializes in such images of grotesque intimacy. In “Flight,” the story that follows “Todd,” readers recognize Eddie long before seeing his name: He’s a man on a bus with “teeth edged in black,” offering facts about crows to the stranger beside him.

Another addict father makes contact with his child in “I Am Optimus Prime.” The narrator recalls a Halloween night when his father’s cheerful comments give way to a subtext of deep resentment. “They’re probably in there,” the father declares, peering into the house of strangers who don’t answer the door. He takes his son to the grocery store in order to purchase supplies for a carefully choreographed attack on the house: not just eggs, but also molasses on the porch, milk in the mailbox, soap on the frosty walkway. This initiation into the world of revenge ends with broken glass — humbling, unnerving, a discomfiting intimacy much like that between Eddie and Todd.

When restricting herself to the events of a single night, Willis writes impeccably. The stories that stretch to accommodate a greater scope of time — “The Dark,” about two friends at summer camp, or “Welcome to Paradise,” about two friends who break into their neighbors’ homes — are less refined, and lack the precision of their companions. In writing such beautiful stories, Willis must meet the repeated challenge of making her next story as good as the last.

 

Jackie Thomas Kennedy’s fiction has appeared in Lenny Letter, Narrative, Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

The Dark and Other Love Stories
By: Deborah Willis.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 254 pages, $24.95.