Children are marched, or forced to crawl, over dead leaves and prairie dog holes, whispering lies to the pecan tree Daddy promised one day to fell. Strip of bark—revealing words etched and glowing underneath.
WE are the Lie Tree. Little Feasts is Jules Archer stripping our bark. This debut smorgasbord of stories feels connected, though the cast is ever-changing, bodies haunting these pages, pages brimming with lies, spanning decades, lifetimes. Lies that rule thoughts and actions. There’s something familiar in their consequences.
If truth scares you, don’t read it. Archer refuses to whisper. Little Feasts is a megaphone exposing grotesque social-constructs, the radio of Western Culture dialed up to 11 before walking away from the scene of the crime. These stories smash cells, exploiting weakness where they land, merged with blood and pus, invoking a new movement, with hopes the collective feedback can drown out the bullshit.
The town criers revolt. Their jobs gone, families gone. Archer abandons the megaphone. Dramatic pause. The megaphone is tossed out. The hopeless mob breaks it into little pieces. The message remains, Archer spitting at the top of her lungs, swatting rivals down with both hands free. She tattoos their foreheads with bad magic. Her stories creep across our idle tongues like secret folklore.
“After-the-Baby-Boomers” presents a fatigue and helplessness in the recurring key of inheritance. This is a message encoded for packed stadiums of followers:
As she and I wait for pig skins to crackle, (grandmother) tells me about our lineage. Eight generations of women who have learned to love wrong and swing high … A crooked smile unfurls across her face. “It’s inherited,” she whispers.
I try not to agree with her.
This, too, from “Skillet,” one of the longest of Little Feasts’ nineteen narratives. Mostly flash fiction. A few micros thrown in. Only five clock-in over six pages and might be considered “short stories.” But, as the title implies and characters make crystal-clear, size doesn’t matter; even the one- and two-pagers have you satiated.
The longer pieces don’t make the unpredictable characters any less weird, but allow you to bake in the magic of uncertainty a little longer. Fans of lyrical prose should instantly fall in love. There’s situational-mousetrap-comedy, as in “In-N-Out Doesn’t Have Bacon,” where Catherine sets up her younger sister Maria with a handsome coworker, not to help her, but more to seethe and broil at the youthful lust-dance. The coworker sleeps with both of them. After Catherine’s sloppy-seconds, he asks:
“So, your sister . . . You don’t think she’s interested or . . .”
“My sister fucks plants.”
Tom flops on his back, his eyes wide and unblinking. “Fascinating.”
I watch his erection throb against the sheet.
Readers tired of tropes will find comfort in Little Feasts’ all-female lead-roles. Those sick of literature’s saturation of fucked up characters will find newness. Archer’s care for the compromised, the lot of us wandering lost through life. What Archer has them do demands attention; her charm—muscles flexed that make other writers reading swoon with jealousy—is her characters getting even:
All things should be even in love and warped visions.
Little Feasts is a rollercoaster—and love is just a word repeated when heard. Fantasies of murder, or being shoved in a trunk, to be murdered, as in “Hard to Carry and Fit in a Trunk,” abound. Folks mislead. The mother in “Backseat Blues” drives her car into a lake to drown herself and abandon her child. Wives poison husbands. Reading Little Feasts is like marathon-watching Investigation Discovery in quarantine, binge-eating ice cream in your underwear. If this scene doesn’t appeal to you, then we’re too different to share this couch. Get up.
First lines haunt, gallop fearlessly like headless horsemen into battle. “Everlasting Full” opens:
Cold, only cold; hungry, always hungry. Only after she met and ate Eddie did Elizabeth begin to warm up.
It delivers. Archer says what needs to be said, in clear, pinging prose. 84 pages that took as long to read as any novel. A series of novels. Whole libraries. And I’m sure—if the experience tells us one thing—as long to write. These stories provide a feast and also feast on you, long after the book is put down. Shock-value isn’t her aim. Town criers fleeing from her dagger-sharp prose. Keep the couch for yourself. I’m gone. These are sentences to be rolled about the tongue, savored:
And because she throws no man a bone, she turns on her heel, lifts her skirts, and leaves him and his mouth in a kind of gonzo-gawp. “Bye, boy,” she says.
With frantic, page-turning energy, Archer invites us to follow as she steers into realms unfamiliar but resonant, takes us by the hand before bashing our head against a wall of sound.
She’s written something great. Buy the book. Taste it.
Let it destroy you. Join me on my tricycle. We can try to keep up as she throttles her hog into Darkness.
Little Feasts, by Jules Archer (Illustrated by Carolyn Brandt). Thirty West Publishing House, February 2020. 84 pages. $16.99, paper.
Tyler Dempsey got to fly into space to save our planet. He got the girl. No. Wait. Bruce Willis. Armageddon. Find his stories here, or him rambling @tylercdempsey.