A riveting wildness animates Stoop City (Biblioasis, February 2021, U.S.), Kristyn Dunnion’s sixth book. This collection of interwoven stories details the complicated, delicately connected lives of recurring characters who balance on the edges between embraced identity and despair, between shared community and nothing. These are not technically ghost stories, but they are haunting stories. A full appreciation of the people, spirits, and ideas intersecting throughout the compilation demands and deserves more than one reading. A tour of Stoop City is a literary thrill ride worth repeating.
That wildness, though, is far from uncontrolled. It is Dunnion’s magnificent command of her craft—of phrasing and pacing, of sentences and structures—that makes the wildness so muscular, compelling, and rewarding. The wildness she captures and unleashes inhabits the interior lives in the stories and her own language as well. That these seem to be one and the same stands as testament to the literary achievement of the collection.
Dunnion laces together the experiences of lesbian widows and desperate gay teens, of handsome hustlers and lost addicts, of lovers and the lonely. She conjures a meticulous placeness for these different lives and abuts the various boxes so many call home: the condos of seemingly accomplished real estate agents, lawyers, and corporate managers are pushed against the clinics, shelters, and motel rooms of people who are unwell mentally, discarded sex workers, or politically magnetic street performers. Scent memory frequently brings these rooms to life with something akin to Proustian recollection: one room “smells like shoe polish and mothballs and faint traces of diarrhea. Like denture powder and Old Spice cologne. Like a man who lived and died alone.” Dunnion renders a city, fully formed, from whiffs of memory that electrify it.
The non-linear structure of the collection and the episodic plots it braids together begs readers to return to the stories with careful attention.
The wildness playing out inside of these boxes—these stories—is the will to survive, to live, to escape. The final scenes from “Adoro Te Devote,” the collection’s longest story and one unique from the rest in important thematic and formal ways, reveals just how strong this will can be, and what may drive it:
A jar smashes. My chest heaves, straining. Pressure builds in my eye sockets. I spin. A wilderness opens inside me, unleashes a rage I didn’t know existed, a fire not completely extinguished by an avalanche of childhood terror and adolescent regret. I can still taste his freckled shoulders, the salt trail on his flat stomach, his chin stubble.
Pauly, a rural gay boy who has been caught having sex initiated by his longtime bully, Greggor, has attempted suicide after his love is rejected, his invitation to run away together refused. He survives his attempt only because his father finds him in time: “Then: strong arms around me. My body cradled as Da cuts me down, loosens the knot. … He rocks me back and forth in those gnarled, tattooed arms, beard scruff against my cheek. Me, gasping, coughing, held by my father for the first time in ten years.” It is longing, love, that fuels the wildness that opens inside of us and fights.
Notably, this paternal salvation occurs within the only story set in a traditional (if challenging) family home, not an urban box. An adult Pauly, full of city-fired wisdom and relationship advice, appears in the collection’s first story, “Now Is the Time to Light Fires.” He has gone from bullied and self-loathing to knowing the “gay ritual”: “We mourn with sweat and style. We outlast the moon and all of the stars. We taxi home at dawn.” The non-linear structure of the collection and the episodic plots it braids together begs readers to return to the stories with careful attention.
For so many other characters appearing across this collection, their struggles are relieved only momentarily by caretakers, by medications or street drugs, by transformations of magical realism. Hoofy, a nonbinary teen who appears in both “Fits Ritual” and “Four-Letter Word for Loose,” finds all of these intermingled as he (reluctantly) clings to life in an emergency clinic, reaching for a more desirable world, one inside of and authentic to him:
Hoofy assumes his true form—a hare—crouched in the warm grass beside a patch of his favourite bell-shaped flower: harebells. Stems drip white sap. Hoofy licks. They’re sweet with a bitter aftertaste. This is medicine. The earth’s own hot smell laid open. The creek sings. Ferns unfurl. A bee stumbles past, drunk on nectar. … He is safe here, in the sweet nest he dug out last spring.
The idyllic moment—this escape into the wild—does not last, as a subdued and “dosed” Hoofy longs to “Stay. Stay in the valley. … Drip goes the morphine.” Instead, “a cold shadow passes” and “Hoofy cries out. The boy longs to be crushed by [a tomcat’s] orange fur, cradled and delivered by merciful teeth. The hare fights to live.” Hoofy’s wildness, his will, comes from being “a bit feral, like some woodland creature from a fairy tale.” Unlike Pauly, who is “cradled” by his father, Hoofy welcomes the cradle of his earthen nest becoming a grave.
Along with such vivid moments of magical realism, Dunnion punctuates the collection with visitations, with ghosts. Some characters feel they are ghosts, “like I’m not even here,” while others feel “haunted” or “buried.” Sometimes, ethereal visitors appear as a “stupefied glimmer,” as Marzana does in “Now Is the Time to Light Fires,” and at other times as a “shimmering” presence. A miscarried fetus unrelentingly haunts “Tracker & Flow,” a story in which a previous abortion has been “tamped down” and “buried.” The ever-present absence of the miscarriage—and its replacement, a street cat named His Magistrate—quite literally destroys rooms, careers, bodies, and lives. The Virgin Mary, with “her stained, blue veil slipping on matted hair,” appears to Jonesy in “Midnight Meat” as a gassy, necrotic, Pan-hoofed chain-smoker:
“God bless all of my loved ones,” [Jonesy] says to the mostly dark room, to the air, to the ghosts of the infinite universe.
Mary farts a loud blast of disapproval. “There’s your God, take a whiff.”
Yes, sometimes laughter fuels the wild energy to survive.
While modern life often may be miserable shit, Kristyn Dunnion shows us the wonder and magic—the wildness—that makes holding on to it together possible, worthwhile, and, ultimately, an act of communal faith.
As fantastical and otherworldly as these stories can be, they ultimately remain firmly grounded by the irrevocable humanity and messy, connective tissue that forms community. Each of us is simply a person, but one node in the hum of a city, not that different from another. The boxes we live in may vary, but the real and humbling homes that cannot be chosen are our bodies, our heads. Interior lives and personal struggles, not outward presentations, connect us to each other. Inside, we have all too much suffering in common.
Dunnion reminds us just how similar we are, consistently and frequently. While characters and ghosts and magically real creatures float across time, places, and stories, bodily realities remain frustratingly constant, inescapable, throughout the collection: imperfect breasts and underperforming testicles, sweaty brows and moist upper lips, hot flashes and cold feet, forced shots of swallowed semen and disturbingly sudden explosions of diarrhea. These remind us we are exploring and experiencing the uneasy lives of unpredictable, uncontrollable, unnerving human beings, of ourselves.
Seizures—bodies and brains beyond control—punctuate multiple stories; upset stomachs abound and threaten revolt: “Ask your belly and your bowels, and your tormented liver for the truth.” A Sartresque existentialism, a nausea, haunts the lives laid bare in the boxes of Stoop City. The weight of living them, of being aware of the weight of living them, is close to too heavy to do individually. In the end, it is community—the pack, even if at times primal and feral—that provides the wildness and energy that lets most survive in the city. Not all do survive, of course. The collection opens and closes with stories, in rooms, of death. Both are scenes of archaeological discovery, of picking through what is left, sifting for what it all might mean.
“I survey her mess … and begin to excavate her cultural materials. I cradle and brush each of them,” says the widow-narrator of the ghost Marzana in the opening story. With “Last Call at the Dogwater Inn,” the collection concludes as a residential motel’s “miscreants arrive to say farewell and snoop Jimmy’s stuff.” Amidst an impromptu memorial, each “claims a memento. Housecoat, slippers, good suit, a fine hat wrapped in tissue paper and stored in an old-timey box. … The sum of a man—is this it?” Ray, the story’s narrator, is “gratified to survive the ritual” and then lets himself retreat from the scavenging scene into the jazzlike sounds of the city to await his own loss of control. Unsure if pain will wrack his brain or pleasure will course his body, he feels “the bedframe tremble and believe I might aneurysm or perhaps orgasm. Bee bop, diddly whop, bap bap, yeah! These are the sounds that bury a man, sounds a man can never climb back up and around, never in his miserable shit of a life.”
Indeed, while modern life often may be miserable shit, Kristyn Dunnion shows us the wonder and magic—the wildness—that makes holding on to it together possible, worthwhile, and, ultimately, an act of communal faith.
Patrick Davis writes poetry, essays, and literary criticism, and is the publisher of Unbound Edition Press. His most recent work is featured or forthcoming in Great River Review, Loveland Quarterly, Provincetown Arts, and The Tunnel at 25. He can be followed or reached @PressUnbound or @PatrickDavisATL.