Stasis rarely finds a good home in fiction. Good characters have to be restless, plots have to be set in motion. Fiction is, by and large, movement. And no motion is more personal than seeking and discovery. Thus, the subtitle here is almost a given. I can’t really think of any stories I’ve enjoyed where the characters weren’t doing either or both. So the eight stories that comprise author Mike McClelland’s debut collection, Gay Zoo Day, are most enjoyable indeed since they have the same restless sense of wonder.
The opener, “Sheffield Beach,” sets the tone. A dark jewel which sees the narrator visiting friends in South Africa for the New Year’s holiday, discovering the true nature and direction of danger in a racially charged atmosphere. The climax, for some reason, reminded me of the ending of “Suddenly, Last Summer.”
With his traveler’s background, it’s no surprise McClelland takes us to some exotic locales. But whether it’s “Mombasa Vengeance,” a keen little Gothic-feeling revenge story, the International Space Station romance of “Yev,” or the Panama City of “La Castana,” feelings and flirtations are part of that universal language of connection. Especially in those last two stories, which may be the most romantic in the book. The innocence of the blonde Russian, Yev, who falls in love with an American spaceman is no match, however, for the 1930’s flyboy smartass Guy Harris, who opens up his story with the plain truth:
Depending on who was asking, Guy Harris called himself an aviator, a pilot, or a soldier of fortune. He used aviator when he was looking for work. Pilot he’d say if he didn’t care much about the conversation. If he ran into a man like himself, a man who was “that way,” that’s when Guy was a soldier of fortune.
My two favorites, however, have no connection to romance. “The Christmas Card” is a non-holiday tale about a woman named Picca who competes with her sister every year for the most memorable Christmas card. Picca’s idea is to use an automatic camera to take pictures of the family all in slumber in the same bed and choose the choicest shot. Only all the pictures of her have a blur superimposed on them. Combined with some Shaker mysticism, this is a lovely story about rebirth and redemption. I was also quite engaged by the story of “Olive Urchin,” which features a young Hong Kong nanny outfoxing her racist employer.
Although there are only eight pieces here–some short stories, some novellas–the book never feels rushed or out of balance. And McClelland is a wonderful writer, able to evoke emotions with locales as well as characters. Gay Zoo Day is a solid collection, and yet another winner from Beautiful Dreamer Press.
© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler