Book Review

The nine linked stories in Kristin Fitzpatrick’s compelling debut collection, My Pulse Is an Earthquake, draw the reader in while expanding outward with an ever-enlarging cast of characters. “Representing the Beast,” for instance, which starts with Keiko, an aspiring ballerina, thinking, “My pulse is an earthquake” as her Aunt Yumi takes a break from dressing Keiko’s hair for an upcoming performance, broadens into a story of Keiko’s love for her aunt, her cousin Ayaka, who died in an earthquake in Japan, and her father.

“Representing the Beast” works because we can’t help but love Keiko. We can’t help it because she has such deep love for her family members. A protagonist with love in her heart speaks not only to other characters but also to readers. We wish the best for her, hoping she will come through life’s trials and tribulations unharmed, or mostly unharmed. Moreover, Keiko’s love allows her, and us, to grasp Aunt Yumi’s pain: “Keiko wonders if Yumi expects an anvil to crush her, too.” That, “too,” resonates—not ominously but certainly with caution.

Keiko has begun to think she herself will probably not, after all, dance professionally. She has gained weight—not a huge amount, but enough to keep her from excelling in ballet. Her father, a doctor, explains to his daughter that she has hypothyroidism.

But what to make of Keiko’s thought My pulse is an earthquake? That the death of Ayaka, a more talented dancer, is Keiko’s earthquake? That Keiko’s emotional territory is one of cliffs and rifts, of falling into an abyss? That being alive means being close to death? Or is Keiko’s earthquake the result of having to quit ballet? Perhaps all of these.

In “Canis Major,” the first character we meet is Rosie, the twelve-year-old daughter of a man who raises Rottweiler puppies to supplement his income as a preacher. Rosie narrates, in a voice by Fitzgerald that is a perfect fit, a story that becomes increasingly engrossing. Rosie’s eighteen-year-old cousin, Vivvi, who had been living with the family, insists on moving into a house with two other young women. Rosie’s next-door neighbor, Officer Ryan, on whom she has had a crush, begins to strike her as oppressive. She and we understand that he has an inappropriate interest in Vivvi. The story grows dark—though Rosie’s pluck and more-or-less good sense offers us a bit of relief. Rosie reads in a newspaper that two local girls have gone missing. Officer Ryan has suggested that the Rottweiler pups be trained to attack. Rosie’s father preaches about shepherds watching flocks. It turns out that he’s speaking about the missing girls. Of whom there are now three, including Vivvi.

Fitzpatrick is especially good with the small details that anchor us in time and place, and in pop music, too.  (For just one example, there is a story titled “White Rabbit.”) A fan “spins [Mama’s] hair up off her back,” and we know what that feels like, the light touch of air on one’s nape, the soft blowing of a fan on one’s hair. When Rosie points out the bike tracks Vivvi left, “[t]he fan oscillates [Mama’s] way, and her apron billows. ‘Marybeth Rosellen O’Neill,’” she says, “‘how dare you keep such a thing from us!’” and Rosie knows she’s in deep water. Rosie is aware of the Charles Manson girls, the event having happened not long ago, and now she is really, really scared.

Here, too, in “Canis Major,” the cast of characters expands, taking in Rosie’s mother, the other girls, Rosie’s dad and his homilies, the dogs (all of whom are named), and of course Officer Ryan.

There is an eerie parallel between Rosie’s father (the dog breeder) and the menacing police officer: Isn’t breeding dogs rather like gathering a harem? Isn’t the female in each case reduced to gender? While the author doesn’t spell out this interpretation, her astute and careful characterizations invite the reader to delve deeply into the stories for complex meaning.

Fitzpatrick’s stories quickly complicate themselves with families, friends, fellow workers. It’s as if one character turns around to let us see the character behind. Or as if the characters, who seemed at first to be only themselves, are connected to others in a web that trembles with the slightest touch. All the collection’s stories are interesting. They are also varied. They place us at differing times in the past and recall unforgettable news events. In “Queen City Playhouse,” in Cincinnati, The Tempest is being staged. In “A New Kukla,” a man planning a special evening for his wife learns during the afternoon that her sister’s husband, a soldier, has been killed fighting Communism. (Another of Fitzgerald’s fine descriptions: “The snow has drenched the space where his scarf should be, pasted his trousers against his shins, and seeped into his stockings. He feels it at the ankles, but the toes are numb.”) “White Rabbit” is stunning and unusual. “The Lost Bureau” introduces us to a female cop who winds up in prison herself; it’s one of the saddest stories. “The Music She Will Never Hear” involves a historian, a guide, and a mine and it, too, is sad, even elegiac. “Center of Population” is one of my favorites. “The Cliffs of Dover” shows us a young girl being married off to a dying man. It might seem farfetched, but it convinces.

Each of the nine stories is fully developed and stands firmly on its own merits, and yet, because of the weblike interconnections between them, they have a novelistic quality. I would welcome a future novel by this talented new writer. Meanwhile, My Pulse Is an Earthquake is an engaging, entertaining, and subtly enlightening collection.

About the Reviewer

Kelly Cherry is the author, most recently, of Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories.