Review: The Species Crown by Curtis Smith

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Species Crown 
- a novella and stories
by Curtis Smith

Press 53
US $18 / Can $22
ISBN 9780979304903

I strongly recommend this collection to the more literary-leaning readers of our magazine, and to those genre readers we may be slowly converting to appreciating such things.  All of the included short stories were previously published in magazines such as Hobart, American Literary Review, and Night Train, between 2002 and 2007.  The novella itself is fresh to the collection, and would be worth it on its own.  The collection is a wonderful mix, each piece flowing and rapping off each of the others; melodies and counterpoints such that I'd strongly recommend reading it straight through.

Smith starts the collection with the /in media res/ opening of "Murder"^1--beautiful, scattered language that gives you just a bit of the story at a time, the story you think you must know but can't quite be sure.  Meanwhile, Smith paints a masterful picture of different lives and histories, which, if there were one common element to all of his stories, would be that--he captures so many different human lives and activities with such significant detail one could almost believe he'd lived them all.

The mix--the language, the tone, even the paragraph usage--shifts a bit with "My Totally Awesome Funeral"^2.  It's a shorter piece, upbeat with darkness--a celebration of life and living in the mental meanderings of someone perhaps just dead, perhaps just dreaming.

"Vacation in Ten Parts"^3 is given as an outline, sentences and sentence fragments bulleted I through X, some subdivided into A, B, C, etc.  The presentation is, if not intrinsic, at least very meaningful to the story in the way it frames the mode of thought.  It spans just one evening, towards the end of a vacation, and a cast of half a dozen ("And your wife.  Don't forget her.").  It's a wistful sort of midlife crisis, where hopes and dreams are reviewed, considered, and everyone else studied carefully in comparison.  As ever, the language is beautiful, and distinct--and after just a few pages, you feel as if you know everyone involved better than they know themselves.

"Three teeth"^4 swings back to a shorter and more natural mode of story-telling, tracing the lackluster aftermath of a cheerleading accident.  The narrator is a spotter, and as such not one of the "Barbies" of the team, and the story could be seen as a portrait of the different worlds people believe they live in, questioning what's really important and what Western culture seems to assume.

One of the strongest stories, I felt, was "The Real, True-Life Story of Godzilla"^5.  One of the longer pieces, it tells the story of Billy Glenn--how he found himself touring Japan playing basketball, and how that fell into donning the rubber Godzilla suit and stomping miniature Tokyos.  It's a love story, a story of perseverance overcoming difficulties, without having any particular dream to follow.  It's sad, and sweet, and ultimately memorable and although, as far as I can tell no Billy Glenn was ever credited in a Godzilla movie, it was believable enough.

At "The Cuckold"^6, we're a quarter of the way through the book and half the way through the short stories--it's not much more than a bite, still wrapped in elegant language.  For what it is, if it were any longer, it would be trite--but I think it's well handled, if just a breath.

"Killer"^7 takes the suspicious mood in the previous story and runs with it, heightening it to a frenzy--where an entire neighborhood mobilizes in the chasing of a serial killer.   As ever, the language is smooth yet real, the characters deep and humanistically flawed, even when we're just given a glimpse of them.

"The Baby Cries"^8 recaps the outline format of "Vacation in Ten Parts"--following the overall focus on living through times of death and dying, "The Baby Cries" paints a large yet detailed portrait of relatives and friends brought together for a funeral, the twists and turns and tangents on the quest for a simple blanket, the memories and truths, loves and hatreds, and the importance of a moment's rest.

"Beneath the Net"^9 is perhaps my least favorite of the collection, though it's in no way poorly done.  There's just very little to it, for me--it's a quaint love story of two flawed individuals, but after a while Smith's exceptional ability to express characters, detail the world and its inhabitants, ceases to impress--it becomes just another story.

On to the next story, then--Jim Asher is a professor of creative writing, wistfully remembering his one or two publishing successes--not seeming to notice one year's class from another as he feels the pangs of a recent divorce.  "Professor Asher's Magnificent Party Hat"^10 investigates student-student, student-professor, and, of course, human-human relationships, and while there are a few awkward social moments, the high ground is taken; and perhaps that's all Jim really has left, in his depression.  By the end, though, he's turned the numbing chill of memories and could-have-beens to a warmth to keep him going, and we feel ourselves re-awaking with him.

"Amelia Imagines Herself in Terms of a Circle"^11 is the most abstract piece of the collection; and if the mathematical investigation is a gimmick, it's a compelling one, and certainly a true mode of thought in the depths of some nights.  The story is full, and clever, focusing on choices and perceptions, and what meaning there might be in any of it.

Finally, then, our appetite whetted, sated, and whetted again--we come to the titular novella, "The Species Crown".  In a book of short stories, this novella is comprised of even shorter stories still--daily diary entries (with various gaps).  "The Species Crown" is the tale of a broken everyman, Stan, and the reminder to be thankful always for what you have, his cousin--Bobby.  Beyond that, I think it's best you come to the novella fresh, the first time.  And then read it again, not because of any particular twists and turns, but because it is just that powerful.


^1 -- “Murder” /CutBank 60/, Fall 2003 (Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List)
^2 -- “My Totally Awesome Funeral” /Hobart/, Issue 6, Summer 2006 (Pushcart Prize nominee)
^3 -- “Vacation in Ten Parts” /American Literary Review/, Volume XIV, Number 1, Spring 2004
^4 -- “Three Teeth” /West Branch/, Number 53, Fall 2003
^5 -- “The Real, True-Life Story of Godzilla!” /Greensboro Review/, Number 71, Spring 2002
^6 -- “The Cuckold” /Parting Gifts/, Volume 20, Number 1, January 2007
^7 -- “Killer” /West Branch/, Number 53, Fall 2003
^8 -- “The Baby Cries” /Night Train/, Issue III, Fall 2004 (Pushcart Prize nominee)
^9 -- “Beneath the Net” /Night Train/, Issue VII, 2007
^10 -- “Professor Asher’s Magnificent Party Hat” /South Dakota Review/, Winter 2002
^11 -- “Amelia Imagines Herself in Terms of a Circle” /Hobart/, Issue 7, Spring 2007
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