Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Karen Russell's short stories go where the wild things are.
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In the story, it is a prerequisite for land ownership under the Homestead Act that a sod building have a glass window; since windows are hard to come by, a frontier community shares a single pane in order to trick a federal "Inspector" who seems to be more bogeyman than reality. Russell depicts the rounds of a boy tasked with delivering the pane to his neighbors, and finally the boy's encounter with a mad frontiersman who may or may not be the pane's rightful owner – who may, indeed, be a ghost.Skip to next paragraph
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There are two other really great, anthology-worthy stories in the collection, and neither is the one with "vampires" in the title. "The New Veterans," a risky foray into war writing, tells the tale of a traumatized vet whose tattoo changes with the progress of his therapy – and changes his therapist. It might have been a slight Bradbury knockoff, but is instead a measured, responsible use of the uncanny mode, of which Russell is becoming a master. Memory, empathy, and the true (thorny) meaning of getting well come in for a scrutiny that is rare in modern fiction. "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis," a ghastly allegory about the wages of psychological violence, is both a tribute to Hoffman's "Olympia" and an affecting condemnation of the most commonplace bullying.
There are also disappointments in Vampires. The title story is unmemorable and freighted with higher-order clichés – "a tan that won't fade until I die (which I never will)" summoned a furious cringe, as did the "Texan [tourist] with a big strawberry red updo," bat tangled in her hair, screaming "TAKE THE GODDAMN PICTURE." "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating" is a protracted, unfunny joke at the expense of sports fans that should have died in the McSweeney's slush pile. And the less said of "The Barn at the End of Our Term," in which United States presidents are reincarnated as horses, the better. It was clearly intended as an exercise in metaphysics, but that doesn't mean we have to treat it with respect.
All told, though, Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a startling success. Willa Cather wrote in O Pioneers! that "[t]here is often a good deal of the child left in people who have had to grow up too soon." Vampires in the Lemon Grove demonstrates the inverse of this principle: There is often a good deal of the adult brewing in artists who haven't had to grow up soon enough. A literary congregation that genuflects before mannered whimsy and overwrought creativity has long praised Russell for being naïve beyond her years. But there is a spark in this writer more substantial than a jar of fireflies, and it's finally starting to burn like a house on fire. Unlike most precocious talents, Ms. Russell's best work is very much ahead of her.