Shortly after I started reading "Brood," the debut novel from St. Paul writer Jackie Polzin, I dashed off a note to a poet friend who used to keep a flock of Rhode Island Reds in her backyard. You will love this book, I told her, the voice is wry and rare and old-fashioned in a good way, reminds me of E.B. White's essays about his farm. And so funny!
As it turned out, the sprightliness of the voice had me so snowed that it took a while to realize that "Brood" is actually a story of unremitting loss. Neither chickens nor pregnancies can be counted on to endure, no matter how much care is lavished on them.
As with Sigrid Nunez or Jenny Offill, one feels that the narrator of "Brood" is very close to the author, even if the plot is fictional (which it clearly is to some extent, since the author's bio says she has children). The narrator lives with her husband, Percy, in a frozen Minnesota exurb near Fridley; her mother is out in Riverton, Minn., and "knows everything that happens there."
Percy is a quirky but dear and unusually handy academic who is continually taking notes for his books, which sound pretty intriguing despite the narrator's impression that people carry them around to impress each other rather than read them. Percy is in the running for a position that would require them to move to California; updates on this dribble in as the narrator cleans houses, tends chickens and visits with her friend Helen, a Realtor with a small child.
As no one else on their street keeps livestock, the brood of four — Gloria, Miss Hennepin County, Darkness and Gam Gam — is the focus of ongoing neighborly attention. "I came to tell you the phone tree's talking," announces an elderly neighbor at the door of the reclusive narrator. "My phone is ringing off the hook."
Has anyone ever described chickens better than Jackie Polzin? It seems unlikely. "Gloria's comb is the exact powdered red of a fresh stick of gum, whereas Darkness's comb has the waxy pallor of a plastic toy left too long in the sun." Often the descriptions include meditations on the existential reality of chickens:
"While the others slept, Miss Hennepin County fought sleep. I have never seen a chicken fight sleep, have always considered fighting sleep a form of ambition, so that now I must amend my view of chickens to include ambition in some raw form. I had watched the others fall asleep to her left and to her right, red combs in a row, the crêpe of their lids shuttered down, each body buoyed by its own even flux. In the midst of the tidal calm around her, Miss Hennepin County would not allow it. Her eyes began to close, then sprung open in a movement so sudden it carried her head with the force."
This little book was acquired by Doubleday in a two-day, nine-house bidding war, which is saying a lot for a skinny debut novel about raising chickens. But as Polzin points out, "A chicken's life is full of magic. Lo and behold."
Marion Winik is a book critic in Baltimore.
By: By Jackie Polzin.
Publisher: Doubleday, 240 pages, $24.