Man's Companions by Joanna Ruocco

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Joanna Ruocco’s newest short-story collection is a keen manipulation of ordinary experiences into strange, funny, lovely, uncomfortable truths. “Chipmunk,” for instance, features a narrator who ponders her insecurities and then reflects on the absurdity of relationships: “I know that with my eyes shut I could kiss a whole parade of men and never guess the difference, even if one of them was my brother.”

Man's Companions
By Joanna Ruocco
Tarpaulin Sky Press 

The essence of Ruocco’s story collection is the afflicted woman, burdened by expectations of society, men, and self. But what’s wonderfully absent are clamoring feminist platitudes. In the same story, the narrator rouses herself from her daydream, which has since shifted to being a mother: “It’s dismal to think about this now, when I’m old enough to have had my own children,” she says. “Mothers don’t trust childless grown women. They don’t want us in their homes. They prickle around us, supposing that we are desperate creatures, or else guided by unnatural impulses. They look at us like we might steal their babies.”

Imagination saturates reality in Man’s Companions; time is suspended as characters dip into hypotheticals. In “Snake,” the narrator and her best friend take a road trip through the desert and discuss possibilities. In the present, they escape to imagination, and in their dreams, they slip back to a former reality. Even when threatened by a deadly snake, the narrator is mentally elsewhere: “If I met a man from the land of snow, an Eskimo man, I would take him to the desert and show him bats and star fruits and gold, things he’d never seen and he’d desire me.” Time slopes as fantasy and reality bleed into each other, but you’re anchored to the story, to its lyricism and the thematic circularity traced throughout. Still, each story differs widely from the last—in character, length, tone—and Ruocco is consistently inventive. She tilts the world as we know it, challenging our senses.

With stories that average just a couple of pages, the brevity of Ruocco’s pieces makes it easy to zip through them—don’t. Don’t even read them in sequence. Each will stand alone, and will probably stand taller that way. Man’s Companions manifests a space between the real and surreal, as though the characters occupy worlds too raw and unapologetic to be true, and yet they feel as though they must be.