"Everyone who works with animals has a mark somewhere," observes an elephant keeper in the title story of Hannah Tinti's debut short story collection, ANIMAL CRACKERS. For some these marks are physical --- Sandy, who is in charge of the monkey house, has a scar across her face where a gorilla bit her; another elephant keeper has lost an arm. But for others, the marks are deeply psychological: Mike, a failed poet, trains sea lions and tries to pawn his chapbooks to zoogoers, and Ann sells tickets while obsessively guarding her bald cat.
"Animal Crackers" is a fitting introduction to the ten stories that follow, all of which explore characters' relationships with various animals and how they locate meaning in giraffes at the zoo, a neighbor's cat, a stuffed bear in a museum, or an ex-boyfriend's snake. Tinti, who co-founded and edits the literary magazine One Story, mines these human/animal interactions for surprisingly effective metaphors that eloquently reveal her characters' views of themselves and the world around them.
In "Reasonable Terms," three giraffes go on strike for better habitat conditions. Lying prone on the ground, their eyes rolled back and their tongues lolling out, they play dead and refuse to entertain their audiences. The predicament causes the zookeeper to reflect on his own marriage: "The zookeeper looked at the animals prostrate in the dirt and was reminded of pre-Darwinian concepts of evolution --- that the length of giraffes' necks was determined by stretching to obtain what they desire. He wondered if this kind of despair was inside Matilda." Tinti does not focuses solely on the human element: playing equal roles are giraffes Doe, Francesco, and especially Lulu, who learns to astral project herself and visits the zookeeper's dreams.
Tinti has a taste for bittersweet whimsy, which often results in stories marked by a wide-eyed magical realism. In "Preservation," Mary, the daughter of a well-known artist, works late afternoons and evenings restoring murals in a museum diorama. But when the museum gallery empties of visitors, a stuffed bear in the middle of the room seems to come to life. Tinti wisely underplays the effect, letting it complement and ultimately represent Mary's gradual realization of her father's mortality.
An entire collection of such concept-heavy stories risks repetition or inconsequentiality, but fortunately ANIMAL CRACKERS isn't intended as a stunt and Tinti doesn't make animals the center of every piece. In several stories, they play merely a tangential or sometimes abstract role. In "Hit Man of the Year," for example, a bison on a buffalo nickel symbolizes love and extinction for an Italian mob hitman. Dark and affecting, "Bloodworks" barely mentions a neighbor's cat until the last few pages when the story, about the parents of an increasingly menacing child, has grown bleakly unresolvable and nightmarishly hopeless. That this story can exist so closely and naturally with lighter fare like "Gallus gallus" --- which features, among other oddball characters, a man who never learned to tie his shoes --- reveals Tinti's considerable range of tone and emotion.
Not everything in ANIMAL CRACKERS works quite so well, however. Tinti's style is streamlined and focused, and every element is perfectly calibrated to exact a particular emotion from the reader or to reinforce a specific theme in the material. Such control is impressive, but too often, as in "Hit Man of the Year" and "Gallus gallus," it chokes the stories of spontaneity and creates the sense that the characters do not extend beyond the boundaries of the first and last sentences.
Tinti's conceptual derring-do occasionally outstrips her practical abilities, but ANIMAL CRACKERS remains an impressive and engaging debut from an author who has no fear of sticking her neck out.
--- Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner