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On the morning of September 16, 2013, my writing mentor Les Plesko committed suicide. I heard he fell backwards off the roof of his apartment building. At first, I chose to assume he’d been drunk and walked too close to the edge. I wished I’d been there to catch him. But I learned that when other attempts were unsuccessful, he went to the roof.

220px-FlowersForAlgernonIn my seventh-grade English class, we read Daniel Keyes’ novella Flowers for Algernon, the first-person narrative of a mentally challenged janitor, Charlie, who briefly becomes a genius after undergoing an experimental procedure. It was my introduction not only to an unreliable narrator but also to one whose unusual speech patterns and perspective on the world opened to me the possibilities of the “other” in literature—whether those others were disadvantaged, culturally different, sociopathic, or just plain crazy. It’s difficult enough for writers to get inside the heads of ordinary characters with ordinary problems; writing from the mindset of a person whom one might not even understand—say, a serial killer—or just not empathize with—a narcissist—can seem downright impossible. And when writers succeed, what does that say about the writer?

Lindsay Hunter owes as much to Denis Johnson as she does to Mary Gaitskill. Her short stories, collected in Don’t Kiss Me (FSG Originals) do not hesitate to descend into the primal urges and dark, lusty behaviors that make us all animals at our core, but they also shine a light on the truth, a nugget of goodness at the center of what is quite often a lonely, depraved and tragic journey, one blanketed in a desire to be seen, to be loved—no matter who we are, or what we’ve done. Hunter’s characters work at diners and long to be included, they take care of their children while embracing their shortcomings, they chase boys into cornfields and kiss their best girlfriends, all the while longing to feel special and included.

In order for a collection of short stories to work, the reader must be pulled into the narratives and settings as quickly and thoroughly as possible. In Vampire Conditions, a slim volume of grotesque stories by Brian Allen Carr, the immersion and compassion is palpable from each opening sentence. We are past the tipping point, along for the ride, and the destinations are always unexpected. These are cautionary tales bound with bruised human flesh, taut and cracking from the tension.

We the Animals is a tiny gem, miniature in length but supersize in emotional effect. Hardly over a hundred pages, with chapters averaging about four pages each, the book resists easy categorization. The cover calls it a novel, and it has the arc and scope of a classic bildingsroman: a boy’s life from around the age of seven to seventeen, as he encounters monstrous obstacles on his way to manhood and finally separates himself from his family and launches into the world on his own. One reason readers will be attracted to this book is the mythic quality of its story: three brothers who live almost like wild animals because of their parents’ outsize neglect; abuse; and ferocious, self-destructive love. Because it is based on the author’ life, we can gasp at the knowledge that Torres lived through such an ordeal with his compassion and empathy intact.

One of the first things to get my attention as I held the slim chapbook Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City (Dark Sky Books) by Michael Bible in my hands was the blurb on the back from Barry Hannah. Why? Because it’s Barry Hannah, that’s why: