I finally met Richard Peabody in person at AWP 2014 and he was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. While I’ve enjoyed the anthologies he’s written as well as the epics that constitute the prestigious lit magazine, Gargoyle, Blue Suburban Skies was the first collection by him I read and it was a great read. Three stories really stood out for me. The first is “Dresden for Cats” which has one of the most fascinating premises for a story. The narrator, in a moment of confusion about his future, goes to visit his Uncle March’s farm and finds his uncle has made his “ultimate creation—a city for cats. And there was no way of knowing how many cats he had on that farm. There were hundreds. Every conceivable color and style…sitting atop a labyrinthine assembly of thousands of packing crates, painted to look like a magical city.” I loved the unexpected imagery and could see the feline metropolis in my head. While at the core, the story is about the relationship between the narrator, his uncle, his aunt, and their pasts, it’s also about the whimsical nature of genius, or at least the eccentricity of it. Uncle March believes his favorite cat is a musical genius. But cats drive his wife crazy and there’s a demarcation beyond which the cats are geographically not allowed. Allegorically, it represents a divide in their relationship and the barriers both have set up over time. The conclusion is both tragic and haunting, but it also hints at one of the themes running through the collection; deconstruction. Of idols, of facades, of reputations, of all things sacred. When referring to stories about his uncle before meeting him, he says, “No two anecdotes seemed to match. No two stories. He was, the most talented man alive and a pure genius, or else a fool who ought to be put away, depending of course on which member of the family were talking to.” Peabody resolves both reputations to reveal a complexity that underlines the multifaceted nature, not just of personality, but experience.
Which leads us to the eponymous “Blue Suburban Skies,” the main character’s wife, Jenny, finds joints in their son’s sock drawer and demands he, as Jason’s father, talk to him. He’s conflicted about what to say when he runs across his neighbor, Walt, “The high school math teacher.” They go for a walk and have a conversation reflecting on their own pasts. There’s ambivalence, nostalgia, regret, joy, and a lighting of the joints Jenny confiscated from Jason. I liked the slower pace of the story, the vignette like nature, a slice out of daily suburban life. The skies are the same no matter where in suburbia you find yourself, but the moments underneath resonate in the unique undercurrents of dissonance. Peabody writes with confidence, but also empathy. There’s a quirkiness that makes each story feel like a whole new conversation, a completely different slice of suburbia, even if the sky is always blue.
The final story I mention is the “Worst Ways to Die” in which fourth grader Thad is writing a report on the worst ways to die, assigned by Miss Tammy “to focus on how the children in her class are coping with the death of three students from the rival elementary school who died in a tragic bus accident last week.” The concluding “worst way to die” is darkly humorous and sobering, especially when considered through the lens of childhood and the prospect of growing up. What is it? Boredom. “Feeling like you’ll die if something doesn’t happen or change. Boredom kills slowly and silently. You can’t even tell when Boredom is killing you.” The easiest cure for it? Read this collection.