Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain by Lucia Perillo is a collection of stories - some just a few pages long - that packs a powerful, emotional punch. Small-town Northwesterners populate these stories, which all take place in an unnamed coastal town in Washington State. The characters have few prospects and are just trying to get from one day to the next while figuring it all out - life, love, why we do what we do.
Except for three stories that feature the same characters, the pieces in the collection are not really connected to each other. In that sense, this isn't quite a "novel in stories." But the setting and weighty themes work as unifying threads.
In 14 stories and a little more than 200 pages, Perillo covers a lot of ground. We meet a chronically ill woman who is sure her husband is cheating on her; a retired doctor in a retirement community plagued with suicides; a mother whose adult child wants to know who her father is; and a young woman who, having moved back in with her mom, wants more from life. Perillo leaves no modern social ill drug addiction, divorce, mindless sex, absent fathers, pedophilia unexplored. But nowhere do we find judgment; only exposition of the emotional trauma that both underlies and results from lives lived in less than perfect circumstances.
I think "Big-Dot Day," the story of Arnie, a young boy whose life has been a series of unfulfilled promises, is my favorite. Arnie and his mother are moving to Washington because her new boyfriend thinks he can get a job fishing (the story's title is a reference to low-tide markings in tide tables). We watch Arnie try to tread the line between loving and believing his mother, while preparing for crushing disappointment once again. In 15 pages, Perillo paints a clear picture of human failure on one side and hope on the other. The story is concise, potent and heart-wrenching.
Lucia Perillo has previously published over half a dozen books of poetry; no surprise, considering this book is full of stories short on words and long on nuance. She seems to come to no conclusions on what the human condition is, or what it means. At the same time, she presents all kinds of evidence that every one of us is inept and needy, yet wonderful in spite of ourselves. This is a book to make us feel better about our shortcomings - even in the deepest despair there is hope.
This review was originally published in July 2012, and has been updated for the May 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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