Meg Pokrass and Jeff Friedman’s The House of Grana Padano, Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

“The House of Grana Padano” Flash Fiction, Pelekinesis Press, 2022, $18.00, 136 pages ISBN: 978-1-949790-49-8

Meg Pokrass’s writing has always been funny, evoking an amused smile, but she reaches a new level teamed up with Jeff Friedman, the two delving into fabulist microfiction. These are basically non-realist narratives, or simply “weird,” encompassing fairy tale, fable, slipstream, magic realism, surrealism, steampunk, animals and angels: stuff that doesn’t necessarily break your heart, the way so many of Pokrass’ stories do. On the other hand, there are stories here that will break your heart. (I am looking at YOU, “Abandoned Father.”)

The ninety-five short fictions in The House of Grana Padano are divided into seven “thematic” sections, but almost all of them involve families – parents, siblings, husbands, wives – the stuff of realistic fiction, but in these stories turned on their head. The salesmen and women in the first section are all Willy Lomans, obsessed with their personal sales magic, peddling visions of a glamorous life to their customers while their own lives fall apart. The father in “My Father the Salesman” and “Something Special” is like an amateur magician, making the Kennedy half-dollars he promises to his son disappear while he conjures visions of plenty. The mother in “My Mother the Realtor” similarly promises thrilling lives of luxury to her clients. “Hiding from men like a gorgeous nun, my divorced mother was wedded to her spotless car.” She’s all business, but when her business collapses, she relies on her daughter to give her back her dreams. She frets that her business is drying up. “I learned how to assure her that it wasn’t, learned how to sell her back her own dream that the future was ours.” “The Diet-Book Salesman” makes a small fortune with the war widows, talking up “the possibilities inherent in weight loss,” until the market dries up and he’s left with a box of old books.

The fabulism steps up in the next section, “The Circus Comes to Town.” What could be more fertile ground for the surreal than the carnies and freaks of the midway? There are families here, too. “Eddie at Home” begins with the observation, “We knew he’d eventually have to join the circus.” He’s eight feet tall. “His head scraped the ceiling as we danced. Our house simply wanted to be big enough for him.” “My Circus Grandmother” is another anomaly, family freak. “She had a tattoo of a clown on each of her biceps.” There’s also a magician father in “Memories of Motown,” from the third section, “Motown and More,” a mime in “Mime Love,” from the fourth section, “Messing with Love,” and in “Family Sorcerer,” from the “Curse of the Family” section, “Under the evening star of the Winter Solstice, I persuaded an evil sorcerer into undoing the curse on my family.” As Hamlet said, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

The stories become increasingly surreal, in Section Two, when in “Return of the Dead Magician” a woman downloads an App that restores her dead husband to life, and in “The Angel Act,” a real-life angel – “a freak with wings” – performs to an audience in the tent, who cheer and throw money. “When they were finally gone, the angel collected the fallen bills and coins and walked over to the fairgrounds for a hot dog.”

As in so many fables, animals are prominent in these fictions as well. “My neighbor Helene said I was born of a predatory bird, like a red-tailed hawk or eagle,” the story “In Childhood” begins, a tale from the “Curse of the Family” section, and “Searching for the Bearded Dragon” features a lost pet dragon named Sam, told from the point of view of a child. “Snapping Turtle,” “The Cost of the Cat,” “Goldfish Skin,” “Picking Up the Moose” (“At a party, I met a moose who was dating a bear.”), “Fish Story” (“‘It’s you and me against the world, kid,’ she says as the goldfish puckers its lips against the glass.”), “Birds Don’t Like You,” “Moose Stand Off,” “Pet Loss” (“Since Hubert the Bearded Dragon died, the thing that cheered me up was having sex with my diner customers.”), “Owl Eyes,” “Wolf Hybrids,” “Dad with Porpoise,” “Snail Women,” “Dead Bugs and Lovers,” “Behind the Scenes: With the Moose” (“I’m in the living room with the moose. He’s got his horns into me….”) – all feature animals in almost Aesop-like fashion. There’s even a troll, in “Trolllikeness”: “One evening, just before dinner, the door lock clicked, and a troll entered our home. For a troll, he wasn’t bad looking….”

Section Six, “The House of Grana Padano,” from which the collection’s title comes, is a sequence of nine stories that takes place in the village of Wedgwood, a sort of fabulist Peyton Place in which a woman’s husband’s ex-wife lives in a house made of cheese – Grana Padano. (Or is it really Pecorino Romano, as the husband speculates in “Mistaking One Cheese for Another”?) The new wife is suspicious, keeps running into the ex wherever she goes. In “The Smell of the Ex,” she observes, “I’ve started to feel like her happy little homeless dog.” Why is this woman in Wedgewood? It’s not really resolved. How can it be? In the final tale of the sequence, “Like,” we learn the second wife “could see through her like a two-way mirror; on the other side, she wouldn’t say why she had come here, and the interrogation kept repeating itself like someone with a stutter.”

It’s hard to know which parts of this fabulous collection were written by Pokrass, which by Friedman. I just assume the ones from a female perspective are Pokrass’s, and those from male’s are Friedman’s, but who knows? The collaboration has made for a seamless set of provocative, funny stories, full of the magic and the absurdity of families. elegantly executed.

© Meg Pokrass, Jeff Friedman, and Charles Rammelkamp

Meg Pokrass is the award-winning author of 8 flash fiction collections and 2 flash novellas, including Spinning to Mars (Blue Light Book Award, 2021) and The Loss Detector (Bamboo Dart Press, 2020). Her work has appeared in over 900 literary journals has been anthologized in 3 Norton anthologies: Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015), New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton, 2018), and Flash Fiction America (W. W. Norton & Co., 2023). She is the Series Co-Editor of Best Microfiction and Founding Editor of New Flash Fiction Review. Meg lives in Inverness Scotland.

Jeff Friedman is the author of eight previous collections of poems, prose poems, and micros including The MarksmanFloating Tales and Pretenders. Friedman’s work has appeared in American Poetry ReviewPoetryNew England ReviewPoetry InternationalCast- Iron Aeroplanes That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 American Poets on their Prose Poetry101 Jewish Poets of the Third MillenniumFlash Fiction FunnyFlash Nonfiction FunnyFiction InternationalThe New Republic, and Best Microfiction 2021 and 2022. He has received numerous awards, including a National Endowment Literature Translation Fellowship in 2016 and two individual Artist Grants from New Hampshire Arts Council.

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives with his wife Abby. He contributes a monthly book review to North of Oxford and is a frequent reviewer for The Lake, London Grip, Misfit Magazine and The Compulsive Reader.  A poetry chapbook, Mortal Coil, was published in 2021 by Clare Songbirds Publishing and another, Sparring Partners, by Moonstone Press. A full-length collection, The Field of Happiness, will be published in 2022 by Kelsay Books.

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