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Kevin Brockmeier's 'Things that Fall from the Sky' reveals mysteries

By Davina Baum

What happened when Rumpelstiltskin's name was guessed by the queen? In his own words, "I stamped explosively, burying my right leg to the waist beneath the floorboards. In trying to unearth myself, I took hold of my left foot, wrenching it so hard that I split down the center." Thus were born the two halves of Rumplestiltskin, according to author Kevin Brockmeier. The bisected imp's other half lives overseas; he himself emigrated to America.

This explanation falls somewhere in the middle of Brockmeier's short story "A Day in the Life of Half of Rumplestiltskin," part of a recently released collection titled Things that Fall from the Sky (Pantheon; $21.95). Half of Rumpelstiltskin is delivering a nonpartisan speech to a local women's auxiliary organization on "The Birthrights of First-Born Children," during which the faces in his audience "exchange knowing glances and subtle, pointed smiles." During the question-and-answer session, the conversation veers off topic: "It's all straw-to-gold this and fairy tale that," and the women are naturally curious to know what happened to his other half.

The reader has already followed Half of Rumpelstiltskin as he wakes up, goes to work as a mannequin replacement at a local strip mall, eats lunch, goes to the drug store, and reads a Mad Libs letter from his other half ("When the words won't come to me, I figure they must be yours. I miss you and ___(subject)___ ___(verb)___ (object)___."). It's absurd, yet logical. What, indeed, would have happened if someone (an imp, a person, no matter which) were split in two? On this medically impossible premise Brockmeier bases his story and follows it completely rationally. It should also be noted that poor Half of Rumpelstiltskin seems to have all his internal organs (or half of them) exposed to the elements. He dries his pancreas off after his shower.

This earnest, whimsical style infuses Brockmeier's first collection of stories. Like Stephen Millhauser (Martin Dressler, In the Penny Arcade), Brockmeier brings lyricism, playfulness, and stunningly beautiful images to his stories. The subjects jump from a man obsessed with creating a new typeface-to the detriment of his marriage ("Small Degrees")-to an anthropological study of the N., a religious people who have created a new version of the Gospels ("The Jesus Stories").

The heartbreaking "These Hands" follows Lewis, a babysitter who is hopelessly in love-romantic love-with his 18-month-old charge, Caroline. "If I could," he says, "I would work my way backward, paring away the years. . . . I would heave myself past adolescence and boyhood, past infancy and birth, into the first thin parcel of my flesh and the frail white trellis of my bones. I would be a massing of tissue, a clutch of cells, and I'd meet with her on the other side." Like Half of Rumpelstiltskin-who, when asked what his one wish would be, says "bilateral symmetry"-Lewis is missing a key component in achieving personal fulfillment.

Other of Brockmeier's characters face what can only be described as more traditional problems-under somewhat untraditional circumstances. In "The Ceiling" (winner of the 2002 O. Henry Award), a husband and wife face the dissolution of their marriage while a strange object slowly descends from the sky, flattening their town, their house, them. The story recalls the character interplay of Lorrie Moore and the freakishness of Stephen King but showcases, most of all, the imagination of Kevin Brockmeier.

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From the April 18-24, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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