A linked collection is such a readerly pleasure. As each new story begins, the reader is reengaged, figuring out how this featured character is connected to characters met earlier, often considering anew what was already known. The world expands as the book unfolds. In Rachel King’s excellent short story collection, Bratwurst Haven, the twelve stories circle around a sausage factory in a small town near Boulder, Colorado. Half of the stories feature characters who work at the factory; the characters in the other stories are connected, in some way, to the factory workers: a partner, an inspector, a neighbor. It is a blue-collar world of people who are struggling to get by, characters who have found themselves in lives they can’t quite escape.
The collection opens with “Railing,” which is written in first-person and features Lance, a former railroad engineer who lost his job and is now working at the factory. Through Lance, we meet many of the workers that we will get to know more closely later in the collection, and this story, first published in One Story, also introduces many of the themes that link these stories together. The work at the factory is brutal, and hard, and boring; the best part of every day is heading to the bar, where they share stories of their lives and complain about the boss. King excels at showing us the monotony and exhaustion of this work, how each day follows the next. When Lance returns home at the end of a long day, he cooks dinner for himself:
Under the sizzling, I heard the low moan of a train. I’d also hear one at midnight, and at 5 a.m. I looked forward to the morning, and my routine. I would go through the cold outside to the cold inside. I would unload boxes of meat from the walk-in. For hours, I would cut bones out of flesh.
The tone of King’s language matches the content: it is straight-forward and honest, never flashy or sentimental.
This is not to say, though, that the stories are not heartbreaking and emotional. In “A Deal,” another first-person story, Aaron meets a woman for a drink, having just learned that he is the father of her child. He is clearly ambivalent about being a father, but he is ready to step up to the plate and take responsibility. Then, she offers to buy him out. It is a classist, horrible move, a slap to the face, but he decides to accept her offer, and his acceptance is a gut-punch to the reader:
My son, who’d soon be out in the world doing something apart from and unknown to me. He was better off with her, I thought. If I raised him, he wouldn’t learn how to be savvy or ambitious. So far, I’d only blindly worked hard.
Money, or the lack thereof, is at the heart of so much here. Working hard doesn’t equate to earning more, to moving out of a situation into one that is better. And here, as this woman suspects, the lure of the money is enough to urge Aaron to step out of her way, to get out of her life. It is a heartbreaking and yet understandable moment.
In “Childrearing,” Kathleen, one of the women who works at the factory, cuts her hours back to part-time so she can babysit her coworker Matt’s six-month-old boy. Her own daughter is grown and has moved into her own apartment. We watch as Kathleen cares for the baby, as she invites Matt to bring the baby for Thanksgiving, as she folds them into her life. And then Matt quits work and decides, for now, to stay home with the baby. Kathleen is suddenly left alone: “For a minute, Kathleen stood at the kitchen counter, listening to the silence.” The pain and the loneliness is palpable.
Throughout this collection, there are many connections that get broken: marriages and relationships fail, children are taken away, deaths permanently change the lives of the living. Every once in a while, though, there is a moment of joy, even if it is fleeting. In “Strangers,” Nathan is out for a drive in the woods and meets a woman who lives in an old mining shack in a ravine; they end up sleeping together. Afterwards, as he drives away, Nathan thinks he’s lost his sense of direction but then he realizes: “As long as he continued to go up, he was headed out of the valley, he figured.” A small moment of hope and optimism following a short, yet intimate encounter.
And in “Middle Age,” Valerie drives home to Oregon with her sister, from whom she’s been somewhat estranged. They don’t resolve their differences—King never takes the easy and often fictional way out—but Valerie ends up understanding something about the importance of connections:
There were people in your life, she thought—sometimes family, sometimes strangers; sometimes friends, sometimes lovers—that you connected with on such a deep level that it made life worth living.
In every story in Bratwurst Haven, we see the value of these connections. The human need to connect with others is underscored by the structure of the collection, each story linked, in some way, to the stories before and after, with the sausage factory at the center of it all. By the time the collection arrives at its final pages, we, too, feel connected and pleased to have been part of this world, and we close the book, happy to have had a chance to know these characters, if only for a short while.
About the Reviewer
Laura Spence-Ash’s debut novel, Beyond That, the Sea, is forthcoming from Celadon Books in March 2023. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, New England Review, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. Her book reviews and critical essays appear regularly in the Ploughshares blog.