by Frannie McMillan
Jules Archer’s Little Feasts (Thirty West Publishing, 2020) is a collection of 19 stories which, as the title and “menu” (or table of contents) suggests, illustrates the full range of human appetites. The narrators in this collection crave connection, justice, comfort, and love by any means necessary. These women know what they’re about, and Archer’s clear, precise dialogue and descriptions serve up only what is absolutely necessary for each darkly comedic, satisfying tale.
Each story’s weird or macabre bent draws readers in from the start. The first line of the book reads “I know she fucked the tree”, and thus begins the story of Catherine, who is still mourning the loss of her dead husband, and her sister, Maria, who has a “strange obsession with boudoir botany”. In “Guerilla Drive-In”, “My L.A. Jerry”, and “Prettier Things”, characters seek connection or acceptance despite their strange desires (like burning a toe-sucking conquest with a car’s cigarette lighter or being turned on by serial killers). After a little rough petting and a violent kiss in “Cheap Tanya”, Tanya’s left standing in the glow of James’s taillights as he heads back to his mom’s house for dinner. In “Hard to Carry and Fit in a Trunk”, Ginny, who mourns that her excessive weight makes her undesirable to murderers, says it best: “All things should be equal in love and warped visions.”
Archer skillfully warps her female characters, who might at first glance be unlikeable, into heroines every reader can root for. Female speakers find subtle ways (like lying about their names in “The Lie Tree”) to steal back power from, or get revenge on, male partners or fathers. Less subtly, in “Skillet”, Annie learns the deadly, man-killing secrets of her great-great-grandmother’s 20-pound skillet (to be fair, the men were generally deserving of their skillet-related ends). In “Everlasting Full” Elizabeth poisons and then eats her husband after he announces he’s changing his profession to medicine (after she specifically said in her online dating profile that she wanted to be with a chef). A reincarnated Anne Boleyn plots her revenge on a reincarnated Henry as she sips mead from a Yeti tumbler and works a shift as a barmaid in “Anne Boleyn Could Drink You Under the Table”. These are women who react to and adapt to their circumstances, not stone-cold psychopaths. While one of the great strengths of this collection is the weird circumstances of most characters, they are still believable, still real.
And these women are tender, too. They suffer. The narrator in “Cyberspace Soup” only slurps soup for internet perverts so she can afford to help her father get well. Maybelline loses her parents one at a time in “Backseat Blues”, while the sisters in “Far Away from Everywhere” simultaneously lose their home, their mother to cancer, and their father to a cult. They’ve suffered, but as the narrator in “Ice Cream Cone” points out, “while all these memories are terribly sad, they are not necessarily terribly bad because they remind you that you have faced worse things in life”. The characters in “We Will Set Anything on Fire” lose language, but not their smiles. In “Garbage Girl”, despite having an awful mother and a menstrual cycle that kicks off every time the trash truck rounds the corner, Lucy gets her happily ever after, complete with marrying a sexy tattoo artist and becoming the kind of mother she never had. Readers get the sense, at the conclusion of each story, that the women will be okay, that they will carry on and thrive in the way that strong people do, simply because they must. Because what else would they do, anyway?
Archer, a Pushcart-nominated writer, is also the author of a chapbook, All the Ghosts We’ve Always Had (Thirty West Publishing, 2018). Two of the stories in this collection, “Anne Boleyn Could Drink You Under the Table” and “Hard to Carry and Fit in a Trunk”, first appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly.
Frannie McMillan’s poetry has appeared in The Coachella Review, K’in Literary Journal, The Indianapolis Review, and others. She is currently at work on her first chapbook, You Ain’t By Yourself. By day, she connects young people with books as a secondary librarian in Richmond, Virginia. You can find her on Twitter @franniemaq.