Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti

Saved from aliens by a bald cat called Stinky
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Animal lovers, stop reading now: unpleasant things happen to the furry and the feathered in this debut short story collection. A pet takes a one-way trip from a third-storey window, a boa constrictor gets dished up with salad to an errant lover, a rooster suffers at the hands of a man displeased with the owner, his wife.

Damaged men, unhinged women and disturbed children stalk the pages. One narrator muses: "You hear animal stories every day. How a bee stung little Johnny and he went into cardiac arrest. How a snake bit Cousin Tom and it shrivelled up his toe.'' Here the boot is on the other foot. In these 11 stories animals offer a reference point for the humans around them. In "Preservation", a dying painter hankers after the taxidermic immortality of the bear in the museum. He signs up for the Gunther von Hagens experience: an artist turns cadavers into famous artworks, and there's a vacancy in "The Burghers of Calais".

Tinti, who hails from Salem, deals with violence dispassionately. At times her style recalls Flannery O'Connor, the stories embedded with incidental Gothic details: the woman saved from aliens by her bald cat, Stinky; the father smothered in a mound of tuna. Tinti shares O'Connor's use of violence, but not her Catholic, Southern perspective. It's hard to discern Tinti's moral position. In "Slim's Last Ride", a boy reduces his pet rabbit Slim to a ragged half-alive thing with missing limbs. His mother's jaunty narrative - "Slim became a problem when he started wearing Rick's underwear'' - is disquieting. Perhaps it's because she greets each mutilation without horror. Or is it because she is equally damaged?

The collection is uneven and sometimes the details jar. In a story set in London, Tinti has characters drinking in "saloons''. But there are some very strong stories, such as "Talk Turkey", about three hapless 14-year-olds suffer parents who steal a car and drive across America. When they crash, two fathers fly out to fetch them. No one comes for Joey. He gets a letter and $40. He is left in a diner, "surrounded by empty plates, fastened in the deserted booth as if he'd already become a memory".

What will Tinti do next? Will she continue to shock like the cleverest girl at school, or focus her considerable writing skills on something more substantial? An elephant keeper at the day's end lies with his head beneath the pachyderm's foot. He says: "I close my eyes, imagine banyan trees, and feel a heaviness lift.'' Finishing these unsettling stories I felt a heaviness lift, too.