Homicide Survivors Picnic
 by Lorraine M. Lopez

Bkmk Press of the University of Missouri-Kansas City 2009, Paperback
First collection? No

awards: Finalist, 2010 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Longlisted, 2010 Cork City-Frank O'Connor Short Story Award

Lorraine M. Lopez lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she teaches at Vanderbilt University. Her awards include the Independent Publisher Book Award for Multicultural Fiction, the Paterson Prize for Fiction, the International Latino Book Award for Short Stories, and the inaugural Miguel Marmol Prize for Fiction. She has written a book for young adults, Call Me Henri and her latest novel is The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters, which was a Los Compadres/ Borders selection.

Read an interview with Lorraine M. Lopez

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"he wonders if homicide hasn't gotten something of a bad rap. Clearly murdering a person betrays a limitation of options, if not lack of imagination. It should always be a last resort. But hadn't Micki reached this stage, even gone well beyond it? Divorce could never keep her safe. The memory of her broken face, glimpsed through the glass partition in the prison visiting area, still makes Leo wince, and he wonders if he has other fundamental convictions that are this shakeable... "

Reviewed by A J Kirby

Thank goodness for Lorraine M. Lopez's serendipitous decision to re-title her collection. According to interviews, the author was set on the title Human Services until a friend suggested otherwise, urging her to go with the far more memorable Homicide Survivors Picnic. The new title becomes the thread which binds the ten stories together; the light which illuminates the key themes within the collection, and ultimately, enriches our reading of them.

At first, the title seems vaguely oxymoronic; the words "homicide" and "picnic" rarely inhabit the same world. But it is the word "survivor" which is key. For these are stories about characters who have suffered through terrible hardships, crimes, disillusionment, dispossession and death. The characters, usually women and children, are the innocent collateral damage from acts of violence, cruelty and desperation. And yet, despite it all, the characters here are surviving.

These are post-apocalyptic, post-traumatic "war" stories set in a real, recognisable America, but one whose psycho-geography has changed dramatically for them. The narrative thrust of the stories concern their attempts to navigate themselves through the aftermath of violence - a drab, grey, over-boiled, faded wallpaper, unflushed toilet of a landscape - in order to overcome whatever shocking events they have suffered. It is about keeping going, about the indefegatibility of the human spirit, no matter how much pressure is placed on it. It is a collection which examines, despairs at, but ultimately celebrates life. Despite the despair and the hopelessness within these pages, there is also a great warmth, a great joy in the fact of simple survival.

Lopez is clearly an adept writer. Her prose is highly polished, economically written and yet each of the tales are rich with feeling. The world which she guides her readers through might be desolate at times, but it is never one-dimensional, always well-observed. It is a highly complex, yet starkly simple road-map for good short story writing which all aspiring writers should read.

The title story, the excellent Homicide Survivors Picnic, actually uses this neat road-map metaphor. The narrator, Ted, accompanies his mother and sister to the eponymous picnic. Along the way, Ted's mother gets lost and he has to read the road-maps for her in order to try to get them back on track. "How many minutes, how many hours, how many days, even years if you added it all up, had they spent roaming the San Fernando Valley and now Northeast Georgia, lost as a trio of lunatics who"d wandered from the asylum to find themselves inexplicably rattling around in a used Toyota Corolla?" But the lost/found analogy is about more than that, it is about the fact that Ted is the one they all rely on to lead them through the psycho-geography of this bleak landscape after his sister's boyfriend has been murdered in a gang-war. Ted does not want the role of guide and yet he finds that people are drawn to him, looking to him as somebody they can follow.
"He had no idea why they were drawn to him. His mother said it was his smile, an unfortunate habit he had of grinning warmly when he was most distressed and confused."

At the picnic, Ted is particularly distressed and confused, and hence, ironically, becomes the star attraction, despite the fact he never even met his sister's boyfriend. The picnic is full of destroyed, hollowed people who simply cannot let go of the past. He feels himself being dragged down by them, despite the fact they all let off symbolic balloons into the sky. He longs to make a real escape from this turgid new reality these homicide "survivors" inhabit, feeling them stifling him. "He imagined a delicious silence unfurling like a beach blanket on sun-warmed sand." He dreams of California and a new life, of no longer being trapped in by mental boundaries. And in the end, the story returns to the road, the highway, and his sister's mad dash across it. We have reached the cross-roads in Ted's life as he must decide whether to run across after her, or whether he can let go. Fittingly, Lopez leaves the conclusion hanging.

This survival instinct is celebrated in the two interlinked stories which bookend the collection, The Flood and The Landscape. Like many of the other stories in the collection, these two stories feature a protagonist (Lydia) who is suddenly thrust into the difficult situation of looking after somebody else's children after some terrible event in which they have become collateral damage. In this case, Lydia is forced to look after her niece Roxanne, after her drug-addicted mother has been imprisoned.

In The Flood, Lydia has taken Roxanne away for a weekend in Paducah, a weekend in which they awkwardly visit cafes, museums and fairs and attempt to try to learn parenting "on the job." She desperately tries to bond with the girl:
"Lydia compares this trip to Paducah to a form of shock therapy – the unbearable midday heat sharply contrasted with the icy green pool, and now, here at the fair, she feels as though she and Roxanne are like body lice, competing with hundreds of others for breathable air, deep in a foul, sweat-drenched arm-pit, a smoker"s armpit; everyone over twelve in Paducah seems to have a cigarette dangling from his or her lips."
The not-quite there interaction between the two of them is captured with no little humour by Lopez here. At one point she swings into full on Homer Simpson mode:
"Roxanne drenches Lydia with a full-body splash that spins her off balance in surprise. She slips from the aluminium ladder and falls deep into the water before clawing and kicking her way to the surface, spluttering: "Why, you little -"
Roxanne herself is in a constant state of post-traumatic flux. She switches from full-on tantrums to desperate attempts to win Lydia's favour by giving her presents. This is clearly learned behaviour, after spending so much time with her drug addled mother and her mood swings, the never quite knowing where you stand. Roxanne offers up colourful pebbles, rocks and even, at one point, attempts to bribe Lydia with a dead bird, "a rigor-hardened mess of pale down, leathery claws, and beak".

Lopez writes children particularly effectively, she has their language down pat, from their sulky "nah-uhs" to their "but I"m thirsty now(s)" and in Roxanne we have as fully formed a character as in Lydia. The Flood of the title refers to an exhibit in the museum which they visit; a working model of the river flooding the town of Paducah in 1937. The flood is both a real, historic natural disaster and also a metaphor both for the apocalyptic events which have washed over Roxanne in her young life.

Later, in The Landscape, Roxanne"s mother is released from prison. Lydia takes a cross-state trip to return Roxanne to her birth mother, but on the way, it becomes clear that Lydia has now become the solid ground for the girl. Rather than "muddling through" as she did in The Flood, she has now become the place to tether the life-raft, the place in which Roxanne can finally feel safe. And in the heartbreaking final line, Roxanne realises this too: "Auntie, when are you going to pick me up? I want to come home." This is a powerful, life-affirming collection.

Lopez proves herself to be an enthralling spinner of tales, and has a wonderful way of using words. More than a simple picnic, this is a literary feast and proof, if any were needed, that the short story form is not only surviving, but living a rich, colourful, humorous, moving life.

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Read a story from this collection in Narrative magazine

A J Kirby is the author of three novels; Bully (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2009); The Magpie Trap, and When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, and a new volume of short stories, Mix Tape (New Generation Publishing, 2010). His short fiction will feature in the forthcoming anthology Ten Journeys (Legend Press.)

A J Kirby's other Short Reviews: Route "Book at Bedtime"

Al Riske "Precarious"
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