Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Wild Life: Collected Works from 2003-2018

By Kathy Fish

Reviewed By Cheryl Pappas

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Kathy Fish is rightly called a master of flash fiction, and her reputation as a teacher is unparalleled. Besides teaching at the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver, she runs online flash fiction workshops that sell out within hours. Fish has been writing flash for about fifteen years, long enough to have several quality journals publish her work. Her previous books include Rift (2015, with Robert Vaughan), Together We Can Bury It (2012), Wild Life (2011), and A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (2008).

This new collection expands on her 2011 Wild Life; while the original contained thirty-four stories, the 2019 edition offers one-hundred-nine. Don’t let the number fool you—there are no “filler” stories here. These stories have been carefully selected to represent the best of her work.

Perhaps the most prized among them is the first story, “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild.” In this hermit-crab-like tale, Fish replaces terms for groups of animals with groups of humans. The list begins with groups with positive, innocent, and even humorous associations, nestled in the comforting confines of a paragraph: “A group of grandmothers is a tapestry. A group of toddlers, jubilance (see also: a bewailing).” Our recognition of these groups and how Fish plays with them sets us immediately at ease. But then, she splits up the lines:

A resplendence of poets.
A beacon of scientists.
A raft of social workers.

The tone shifts ever so slightly here with the mention of social workers, with whom we might associate abandoned children or domestic abuse. The next paragraph is almost a foil to the first in that all the groups relate to some challenge or trouble: first responders, protestors, special ed teachers, neonatal ICU nurses, and hospice workers. Yet the names of the groups are pure light: protesters are a “dream,” hospice workers a “grace.”

The lines split once more, and here we enter the dark point that is this story’s destination: “Humans in the wild, gathered and feeling good, previously an exhilaration, now: a target.” She could have ended there, but she continues until we land on the last booming line, standing on its own, cleaving our heart with keen awareness.

“Collective Nouns” serves as a fitting introduction to the rest of the stories, all of which relate in some way to the “wild” within us. Fish assumes the role of a zoologist, documenting wildness seeping out of otherwise orderly lives. She takes a magnifying glass to the suburbs and beyond to capture unhappy home life, failing relationships, and the secret recesses of the hopeful heart.

Accordingly, many stories are told from a very distant third-person point of view, featuring unnamed characters. In the darkly humorous “Collection Day,” in which there is no single protagonist, we see several characters mysteriously carrying their belongings from their homes to the curb for garbage pickup, moving “as if responding to orders barked from a megaphone.” They lug leftover boxes of pasta, beds, trinkets, mattresses, cell phones, toys, and more, all fueled, it seems, by a fervent desire to rid themselves of anything associated with human civilization. The last lines take the tale into a bleaker territory, though still comical, as we imagine the endgame of the exercise.

Some stories are brilliant abstractions, like the fabulous “The Cartoonist.” The flash’s narrator quickly “sketches” a wild moment in a domestic scene. In it, the narrator is telling herself, in second person, what to “draw,” setting up a multilayered characterization:

Your baby brother, banging a spoon. Pencil his smile illegally crossing the borders of his face. A crow flies down through the chimney and enters the dining room, ruffles its feathers on the buffet table. Evil, triangle-shaped eyes. Your mother rises, grabs the broom. Furrow her brow.

Though the narrator seems to be an outside observer, the story feels intimate because we’re listening to her talk to herself. The last line is the most intimate of all, as it hints at the source of the deeper tension undergirding the chaotic scene.

To characterize this outstanding collection as containing only stories along such abstract lines, told from a dispassionate perspective, would be a disservice. There are several other immensely satisfying stories with fully drawn characters: the tender “Swicks Rule!” features a man trying to manage his grief at the first annual family cookout since his wife died, where he discovers the restorative power of sharing a meal; “Everything’s Shitty at Price King” deftly balances humor and terror as a sullen teenager working at a convenience store is held up by a crazed man holding a gun and a baby; and in “There Is No Alberquerque,” a woman born with horns on her head is inspired to dream when she finds out the only man who has ever been genuinely kind to her is moving away.

A wildness runs through all of the stories. Sometimes wild animals—predominantly sea creatures—are called up as similes (“His party hat had slipped and now it poked out of his forehead like a narwhal’s tooth,” or “I see him, slippery as an otter”). Sometimes the wild is expressed in madness, as in “Wake Up,” in which a woman sings along with her sleepwalking neighbor standing outside her door in the middle of the night. Fish treats madness tenderly and with curiosity, as if those suffering from it are akin to animals who have temporarily lost their navigational capabilities. Sometimes the wildness is found in children who have adapted to the normalcy of neglect, as we see in “The Hollow” and “A Room with Many Small Beds.” And sometimes it’s found within a character’s impulse to go beyond all-too-human constructs, like the characters in “Collection Day” wanting to get rid of their possessions.

Together, the flash stories in this collection don’t just document the wild in our human lives—they make the point that there’s nothing more human than being wild.

Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, jmww journal, Triangle House Review, 100 Word Story, Cleaver Magazine, Tin House Online, and more. Her website is cherylpappas.net and she can be found on Twitter @fabulistpappas.