The power of imagination: Karen Russell walks on wild side of literature

Author's stories articulate a universal, grounded sense of dislocation and longing


Rutherford B. Hayes was the 19th president of the United States. Now, suddenly, he’s come back to life — in the body of a pinto horse. To his surprise, “Rutherford” finds himself living in a barn, stabled in a 12x12 stall, thinking in English, but unable to communicate in horse language with his human keepers.

He glances left, he glances right. He realizes that 10, maybe 11 companions in the barn are president-horses as well. Dwight Eisenhower. Ulysses S. Grant. Andrew Jackson. Thoroughbred-president John Adams, who just today showed up in the barn, is kicking his stall, making quite a fuss.

“Gentlemen, we must get out of here! Help me out of this body!” John Adams exclaims. “We need to alert our constituents to what has befallen us… .”

Can you imagine it? Can you imagine a dozen ex-presidents, horse-presidents — put out to pasture, as it were — plotting their return to Washington from the confines of a distant barn?

Well, Karen Russell imagined it. Then she wrote it out, as a short story: “The Barn at the End of Our Term.” It’s a story about presidents and horses, dislocation and denial, longing and identity. It’s outrageous in every way — and completely in touch with the universal.

***

Karen Russell, at 32, is already one of the most daring writers in American fiction. Imagination is her signature. It’s a walk on the wild side, reading Russell. At the same time: Her writing is often delicate, elegant, exotic and grounded in nature.

“Swamplandia!”, Russell’s debut novel, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2012. She’s also published two acclaimed short story collections: “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” and the brand-new “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.”

Russell, who visits Kyle for a reading and book-signing at the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center at 7:30 p.m. Friday, admits she’s a devotee of Lewis Carroll. It’s significant that her stories feature narrators — a vampire, a horse-president, but most often children — who are trying to make sense of wild, surreal terrains.

Do you feel lost? Disconnected? Does the landscape before you seem to threaten your physical and moral bearings? Do you ever have the sense that the last vestiges of your innocence are being scraped away? Russell’s fiction addresses the sensation on almost every page.

***

Ollie White is a science nerd. He loves astronomy, feels an intimate connection to the night sky. He’s curious, alive in nature. Then Ollie meets a “cool” kid, a bully named Raffy — and in his yearning to belong, to run with the crowd, his very identity is put to the test.

This bully, Raffy: He wants to mess with nature. It’s natural, for him, to hurt other things. Raffy wants to smuggle endangered sea turtles — baby turtles — off a protected beach. He wants to trap them by confusing them, encouraging the turtles to follow false light into a kidnapper’s sack.

So does Ollie throw his moral compass into the sea and play along? Or does his larger sense of compassion and honor win out?

On one level, “The Star-Gazer’s Log to Summer-Time Crime” is a coming-of-age tale. Yet it’s clear that Ollie’s story — dealing with the price of complicity — is very much our story, a challenge that confronts all of us in modern America. In Ollie’s new world: Environmentalists are the enemy; deception becomes cool; cruelty is something to be rationalized.

What happens when we refuse to say “no” to the bully? What happens when we follow the false light, and deny our conscience in the name of playing along? As it is with Raffy’s penchant for humiliation — or the smuggling of baby turtles — so it is with drone strikes, or torture, or polluting the ocean, or incurring harm in the name of profit.

“Please don’t do this,” Ollie whispers to himself, as the stakes go higher and higher, wondering if his body will act in accordance with his heart. “You don’t have to do this… .”



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