Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain: Stories

  • Lucia Perillo
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 224 pp.

Fourteen deft stories populate this debut fiction collection by the award-winning poet.

Lucia Perillo has a poet’s eye and economy, qualities that shine through in the 14 stories that make up her debut fiction collection. That’s not to say that her short stories are minimalist; on the contrary, they are fulfilling and rich and some are quite long. Perillo is a writer who is in full control, who has honed the skill of always selecting not just the approximate word, but the exact word.

Three linked stories — “Bad Boy Number Seventeen,” “Saint Jude in Persia,” and “Late in the Realm” — frame the collection and explore the lives of some of its most memorable and vulnerable characters. The unnamed narrator, a love-weary boat shop employee who’s done a stint in rehab, speaks with unflinching honesty about the men in her life, the breakup of her parents’ marriage and, most poignantly, about her older sister Louisa, who has Down syndrome. In fact it is Louisa, worldly and naïve, wise and clueless, who is often at the very heart of the story.

In one scene, when Louisa’s pony dies, the stark difference between the two sisters is apparent: “What happened was that not too long into his time with us, the pony had a heart attack as it trotted along under Louisa’s weight, and Louisa sank to the ground with three hundred and fifty pounds of dog food underneath her. Picture me as the little sister watching from the far side of the field as the bigger sister squats bowlegged with the carcass in between her fancy boots. Even from a distance I knew that Mister Twinkie was dead and I knew that she did not, and I knew that my knowing forever changed the space between us.”

But Louisa is not just a helpless special needs victim. She has personality and convictions. When the Daughters of the British Empire (a group to which her mother belongs) hold their High Tea, Louisa is stationed at the door because she “is surprisingly a Nazi when it comes to body odor and sobriety. That’s what happens when you spend twenty years in special ed: you come out an enforcer for the social contract.”

The narrator exhibits a fierce love for her sister, but she’s been around long enough to become jaded. She is, after all, on “bad boy number seventeen” in the opening story of the collection. Her observations are often spot on. When her therapist in rehab tells her to view her life as a ball of clay that can be “molded into anything,” she replies, “But say I left the clay in my purse in the car, and say with the windows rolled up the whole thing got sort of baked and cracked so that when I go to take the clay out of my purse, it crumbles?” Not one to be taken in by vague metaphors, Perillo’s narrator is an acute observer of and commentator on the details of everyday reality.

The characters in Perillo’s other stories are equally remarkable. In “Report from the Trenches,” a woman who has just had an argument with her husband listens to her neighbor Jill retell a story about her wild days, when she ran with boys who robbed mini-marts in Amish country. The narrator is completely engrossed in Jill’s retelling and even contributes the parts she knows, making the story nearly her own. And then, abruptly, we get this:

“The kitchen falls quiet again, except for the sound of the baby upstairs on his planet far away, his cries coming in a language that I do not speak. All that I can decipher is that he has one idea and that idea concerns rescue, and he knows how to bypass the brain and shoot straight for the glands, producing two wet spots on the front of my blouse that I don’t want to think about quite yet. I’m still trying to imagine myself in the car, with the boys and the gun and the money and the horses, and this means stepping out of my whole life.”

The two women return to telling the story, Jill finally concluding with a striking image of an Amish girl in a slinky dress standing in the door of a pool hall that she glimpses as she speeds through a town with the boys. “And she was smoking a cigarette and looking straight at me, like she’d been standing there all her life, waiting for someone like me to come along,” Jill concludes.

The narrator is so absorbed in inhabiting Jill’s story that once again, when the baby, “my Martian,” cries, her breasts leak, but she persists in remaining in the story. She is so disconnected from her present life, so detached from her motherhood, that living vicariously through her neighbor’s story, grasping desperately at a fleeting image from someone else’s past is all that she can do. When she asks Jill how the Amish girl fits into the story, Jill’s reply is noncommittal. “I just think of her often is all, she says. “You were the one who asked.” And here the story ends, thrusting the work of interpretation on the narrator — and the reader.

This story, like many of Perillo’s, ends in an understated, subtle fashion. It’s the kind of story that ends before you expect it to and stays with you, your mind returning to it, going over the wisdom of its compactness, the writer’s deft ability to let off at just the right instant, like a pianist releasing a key with perfect timing. A less confident writer might not have concluded here, but Perillo knows when she has accomplished what she intended. She has the gift of knowing when to stop.

There are many other gems in this collection. All are worth a careful read. Perillo, who has already made a name for herself as a poet and essayist, proves in this debut that she is also an adept and skillful practitioner of the short story.


Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World (Black Lawrence Press, 2010). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader’s Digest, Blue Mesa Review, So to Speak, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska.