Ann Stewart McBee’s debut collection, How Rabbit Went Down and Other Mishaps, exists at the nexus of the surreal and the gritty. The stories juxtapose forays into magic—specters, people who can fly, indulgence of myth—with moments of the guttural realism of physical injury, struggling to make ends meet, and a toxic marriage.
“Learning To Fly” is one of the most impactful stories in the collection, centered on its narrator, Rachel, an overtaxed mother, breadwinner, and victim of domestic abuse who quite unexpectedly learns that she can fly. Despite flirting with super hero ambitions, Rachel runs into practical realities. Without x-ray vision to accompany her flight, she can only swoop in to stop crimes that happen outdoors. Likewise, when she settles for chasing a cat from a nest of baby birds, the only thanks she gets is “a hell of a scratch on the inside of [her] arm.” The story is deceptively cutting in its social commentary, particularly in the revelation that her grandmother, too, has a super power that she’s kept quiet for a lifetime, on the premise that women are—often as not rightly—frightened to reveal all that they can do.
The collection engages with the intersection of speculative tropes and practical concerns elsewhere as well. “He Followed Me Home” renders a ghostly young man as a manifestation of grief. All the more potently, the collection’s title story, “How Rabbit Went Down,” artfully weaves a New Orleans folk tale about a trickster rabbit who convinces old women to cook themselves with a contemporary plot about two women, in over their heads on a vacation to the French Quarter. The story also features moments of ethereal description to at once capture the scene precisely and overlay a supernatural tone—including the moment of the characters’ arrival, depicted when, “the shimmering gray Cadillac moved noiselessly as though not touching the cobblestones at all but floating along on an invisible conveyer belt.”
McBee doesn’t shy away from using sleights of hand on a prose level either, such as is the case in “The Itch.” The story speaks to the cyclical nature of family arguments and a sense of quarter-life ennui as the protagonist relives the same sequence of mundane family drama over and over in looping sentences that threaten to drive the reader mad along with the character.
Another of McBee’s central concerns is the interaction between people and the inanimate. “Suck” is in many ways a portrait of Harry Bilson grappling with a new reality in the aftermath of a separation from his partner Addie, framed around his quixotic quest to fix a functional, but painfully loud, vacuum cleaner that’s already well outlived any rational life expectancy for a home appliance. The vacuum becomes a metaphor for Harry’s relationship with Addie, the way in which it ultimately mauls him—“the monster snatched and began devouring the middle three digits of his right hand”—right as Harry and Addie approach a moment of rekindled intimacy. This speaks artfully, if gruesomely, to what’s broken between these characters.
Later stories like “Ruth’s Red Ale” and “Smash” revisit these sorts of interactions. A yeast that won’t stop bubbling in the fermentation process reflects the characters’ helplessness to affect their surroundings amidst poverty and cancer treatments in the former story. In the latter, an actor with a cut physique obsesses over food to the point of fetishizing it, capturing him opening a secret tub of Ben and Jerry’s and finding, “it’s still hard enough that the licky sound of the waxed cardboard peeling away from the ice cream rings out gorgeously … He excavates the sweet poison spoonful by generous spoonful … yanking free as many pistachio nuts with each bite as he can. They turn into a savory butter inside a creamy bath of sweetness underneath his tongue.” In both “Smash” and “Pantoum of the Unseen,” McBee grapples with issues of contemporary celebrity culture, offering a real sensitivity to a life lived under public scrutiny, and the struggles of a recovering addict, particularly ill-equipped to spend his life surrounded by cameras.
Taken in full, How Rabbit Went Down and Other Mishaps is an ambitious collection that deftly balances a raw edge with a sense of whimsy. The book leaves readers with no shortage of big ideas to grapple with regarding human nature, storytelling, and what any one of us might do if we could fly or relive a moment—assuming we can’t already.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. He is the author of three full-length short story collections: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books, Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle, and The Long Way Home from Cowboy Jamboree Press. Chin won the 2017-2018 Jean Leiby Chapbook Award from The Florida Review and Bayou Magazine’s 2014 James Knudsen Prize for Fiction. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.