David Crouse: Copy Cats

Crouse captures people at the breaking point. People on the verge of madness, of losing jobs or walking out on them.

David Crouse | Copy Cats (Stories) (University of Georgia Press; 238 pgs; $24.95)

This collection of stories is the 2005 winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, but don’t read it just for that. Read it because Copy Cats offers eight of the most captivating, well-written, and intellect-inspiring stories you’re likely to read all year.

Crouse captures people at the breaking point. People on the verge of madness, of losing jobs or walking out on them. People who ruin relationships or families. People who tell lies or appropriate things that don’t belong to them. People who have lost: loves, family members, beliefs. People who have secrets they need to get out.

In “Kopy Kats,” Anthony is a copy shop worker both repulsed and intrigued by an old customer he called Yorick. When Yorick falls ill, Anthony feels the need to look for him, to find him, to take care of him; the old man’s needs are secondary. In “Morte Infinita,” Kristen skips school to go to horror film fests with her mentally imbalanced father. To explain away his illness, her dad makes up stories: the reason her mother left, historical predictions. As his stories collide with reality in a way that is both painful and illegal, Kristen begins to see him for what he is.

The longest story in the collection, “Click,” is a thoroughly captivating tale of Jonathan, an out-of-work photographer, who makes a down-on-her-luck junkie/hustler the focus of a photography study. He begins to idealize her in ways that threaten his impending marriage to the understanding, empathic Stephanie:

He hadn’t planned to go by her place, but he had been in the neighborhood, and he had his camera with him, and he was worried about her. She had opened the door and smiled as if she expected him, although she was dressed in her bathrobe. He could see the curve of her breasts, the flowered trim of her white bra, and a new mark on her chest about the size of a baby’s palm. He had wanted to grab her by the wrist and drag her out of the apartment and into a new life, any new life, to do something as simple and dramatic as saving her.>

In “Crybaby,” the narrator—a successful, married father—returns home to help a childhood friend and finds himself drawn back into the Web of illicit substances and improper relations. One of the more memorable stories is “Code,” told from the first-person point-of-view of a disturbed man. The tale begins as Michael returns to work early from a forced vacation. The man is obviously imbalanced, unable to comprehend—nor fully be a part of—reality. The intrigue is heightened by rumors going around about a “list”: names on the company’s list of downsizing targets.

I found a Post-it note stuck to my terminal saying that the vice president of something wanted to see me. I didn’t recognize the handwriting. A cartoon in the upper left-hand corner showed a fat orange cat sleeping in a hammock, an image that seemed completely incongruous. The more I looked at it the more sinister it became, and I had to force myself to put it down. I fished my socks out of the wastebasket, put one in each pocket, and headed toward my destiny.

In “The Ugliest Boy,” Justin spends a not-quite-blissful summer in the home of a girl he believes himself to be in love with. He succeeds in getting to know her disfiguringly burned brother—previously known as Barbecue, henceforth as Steven—and in admitting his own shameful truth. Finally, in “Retreat,” Carol confronts her husband Nicholas’ destructive habits by creating and then destroying something she holds dear.

All of us have, at times in our lives, been driven to the breaking point. That we have survived—that we have managed to keep at least one toe firmly in the soil—makes reading a collection such as Crouse’s all the more entrancing. This could have been me, we will likely think during one story or another, before turning the page and feeling smug and warm inside our homes. And still, we keep turning the pages.

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