With this publication of Deer & Other Stories from Wilderness House Press, her first book of short fiction, novelist and poet Susan Tepper is well on her way to establishing her own territory, even as Cheever, Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor have done. Instead of the world of monied but angst-ridden New Englanders, violent and ancestor-ridden Yoknapatawphans, or Gothic, God-ridden Southerners, Tepper has her world of late-Twentieth-Century-ridden lost but valiant souls.
The leitmotif of this book is the deer, who makes an appearance in each story whether as a head on a wall or hanging upside down in a garage, draining. Putting a deer in each story could have been a tiresome affectation, something dragged in to achieve continuity, but when deer cross from their wilderness into contemporary civilization (or what passes for it in a Tepper story), my first thought is of the deer as elegant, out-of-place creatures standing frozen in the lights of a car. We know they will soon be transformed into road kill, much as many of the characters in this book will be transfixed and wounded by the lives they find themselves out of place in, whether that place is cleaning a filthy rented house or sexually servicing the Beatles along with the lesser Mahareeshi in India.
It is a measure of Tepper's excellent writing and the tenderness with which she views her characters that we care what happens to these high school students playing hooky and driving illegally while passing a joint, this mismatched honeymoon couple with a wife trying to cope with a mouse-haunted house and a husband who wants sex "with devices," all the while worrying if such a thing might leave her with a permanent vibration, a young boy struggling with life in Italy with his grandparents, his only friend another young ex-pat who tells him his family "defecates" in the ground. "Naturally we have a toilet. We're not animals. We shit to fertilize the garden. We give back what we get from the ground. We get very large radishes. You'll see."
The stories are fascinating but let's talk about the language we find in this book. Susan Tepper writes damn good sentences, sentences to enjoy, to linger over. As someone who has taught writing, I could pick any page in this book and have students study the variety of sentences, the texture they lay on the page. A lush variety of beginnings, from prepositional phrases to participial phrases to single words. Front-loaded sentences, back-loaded sentences. Balanced, coordinated sentences and the occasional short, starkly declarative utterance. This is the writing of a language lover, not cunningly devised but flowing easily with a gorgeous balance of language perfectly suited to the characters.
Immediately and especially noticeable is the onrush of exciting, powerful verbs. Teenagers clock eighty-five, things are rammed, chilly wind beats, food is shoved into mouths, a wife flashes a sweetly savage smile. Details are crisp, clearly observed, telling, not overloaded with adjectives and unneeded adverbs.
The dialogue here is language that would naturally issue from the mouths of her characters but even in passages where the characters are not speaking, we share in their interior lives with interior monologues. This is an immediate book and we are sucked into these difficult lives and stay with them until the resolution, wishing the story could go on a little longer.