Lydia Peelle. Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing. Harper Perennial.


In Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, her exceptional first collection of short fiction, Lydia Peelle addresses the consequences of humanity divorcing itself from nature, using the context of the American South losing its rural traditions as an accelerant for her characters’ existential pain. Within her stories, Peelle develops the idea that individuals resemble what they surround themselves with. The title suggests, then, that there is an advantage to associating with things that are at least capable of breathing, such as animals, rather than things that aren’t, such as machines. These are worlds in conflict, one encroaching upon the other, and what matters is not which of these will be preserved in the end, but whether or not these characters in good conscience can accept their role in society’s privileging of one over the other.

Peelle is a southern writer in the elegiac tradition of William Faulkner, and her accomplishments include being featured in a who’s who of year-end fiction anthologies, as these stories have earned placement in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, twice in Pushcart Prize collections, and twice in Best New American Voices. For a short story writer today, emerging or otherwise, it doesn’t get much better.

The collection begins with “Mule Killers,” a story that chronicles the summer when tractors were introduced to the farms surrounding Nashville, a change that renders beasts of burden useless. Throughout the story mules are being trucked off to be destroyed. This is the same summer the narrator’s father (a teenage boy in the story) must give up the true love of his life when a different girl becomes pregnant with his child, an unintended consequence of trying to make the first girl jealous. As in the other stories, Peelle’s affection for her characters in “Mule Killers” reveals itself in the rolling, gentle lyricism she employs when writing about these country boys and girls. The travails of youthful romance are beautifully depicted. Prudence ultimately quashes the boy’s opportunity at true love, as he must do the right thing by the pregnant girl. The introduction of tractors similarly severs his connection to the natural world and his regional traditions. Unsurprisingly, soon after the last of the mules is sent off to the rendering plant, “a tractor overturns on a hill down by the river and nearly kills one of the hands.” In the mere fact that this accident “is not an unexpected tragedy” it is apparent these men already have compromised their spirit—and their very bodies—in the name of progress. They knew something bad was going to happen as a result of their actions, but they went along because it was the prudent thing to do.

Another standout story, “Sweethearts of the Rodeo,” is a reflection on “the last summer, the last one before boys.” The pair of adolescent girls in this story work in a stable run by the lustful and irascible Curt, a man who spends the vast amount of his time carousing with his wealthy female clientele rather than actually tending to the horses in his charge. While the girls “barely got off those ponies’ backs” over the course of the summer— their initial connection to a pure, natural world—they spend an increasing amount of time fantasizing about what licentious services their boss could be performing for the women who visit him. The girls even go so far as to peek through Curt’s shuttered windows while he’s with a “lady” before sneaking off to share their first cigarettes. Much of this story is in the subtext, what doesn’t happen between the girls and Curt over the course of that summer. There is a menace, sexual and irresistible, that runs under the actions of the girls, in the pranks they pull on Curt and in the appeal lewd behavior holds for them—pantomimes of the bawdy acts the girls will soon engage in, “spinning out of control on a loose gravel road in a car full of boys and beer.” As if to cement her disconnect from those pony-loving, pre-boys days, the narrator asserts in the end that “someone should write an elegy for those ponies. But not me.” The narrator no longer would be capable of producing such sentimental thoughts because she is telling this story as a lost woman. She’s changed and the world of the ponies is long gone.

Throughout the collection, Peelle’s immense talent is clear in her ability to construct a finely crafted piece of fiction. It’s hard to complain about any of the stories collected here; they are without exception very good. Yet, the stories in which Peelle takes greater risks with her writing are the most successful—when she allows her characters to move freely in the world by experimenting more openly with structure and theme. These stories mostly feature characters who are anchored inexorably to their hometowns and, even more, are bound to the history of these places, which is where the influence of Faulkner is most evident. However, it’s the characters who fight back against their stifling plight in life, who go out into the world in an attempt to fill their empty spaces, that become the most sympathetic. It’s the narrator of the title story running into her estranged husband on the snowy streets of Boston; or Charlie in the “Kidding Season,” who steals a truck and lights off for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast on the promise of work and women but ends up toiling alone on a doomed milk-goat farm with its sole proprietor, a middle-aged, sexless woman from the North, a Yankee; or the stroke-addled narrator of “Shadow on a Weary Land,” who migrated to Nashville in the seventies, not for the music but “just for the drugs,” and ends up searching for the lost bounty of Frank and Jesse James, which supposedly was buried on land that is being rapidly paved over to prepare for a tawdry exurb development. The title story and “Shadow on a Weary Land” are especially moving because a glimmer of hope is at least perceptible by their conclusion—in the redemption of a lost love, in the anticipation of joy that might be brought by the birth of a child or the discovery of long-buried treasure.

In Reasons for and Advantages of Breathinghas a primary ethos that holds the stories together, a way of living they all endorse. In “Shadow on a Weary Land” the narrator hits at the heart of the collection’s contemplation on the lost art of being a caretaker of the land. “I remind myself that, though I’ve almost paid off the mortgage, this house doesn’t really belong to me. I am no more than a squatter, only passing through.” There is a great sadness in these stories, not only over man’s insignificance and cruelty and inane passion to proclaim ownership over that which cannot be owned, but for the moments when this insignificance and cruelty converges with a characters’ sense of self-awareness—when they know that something bad is about to happen but are unable to stop it.