(Norman, OK: Texture Press, 2015)
If real life is stranger than fiction, Nathan Leslie’s new collection Root and Shoot is the splendid exception. Vivid, bizarre, and hilarious, each individual piece of short fiction forms a mosaic of the everyday and the extraordinary. From a man adrift after a recent divorce and hired to commit arson, to a woman who gives birth to a spoon, each of these stories contains characters that you couldn’t forget if you tried.
The first section of Root and Shoot is titled “Snapshots,” a word which accurately describes most of the pieces in the collection. Each one is a brief yet vivid picture of life, capturing a single moment that telescopes into a glimpse of an entire life. The brevity of the stories makes them all the more effective; we are catapulted into the character’s lives, made to live and breathe in their skins for a couple pages, and then plucked back out again. All of them are written in a style that explores its characters without taking its time, as lively as it is insightful.
A day in the most average of lives will contain flashes of the surreal, encounters passing so quickly they fade into the background radiation of everyday living. Root and Shoot recaptures those moments, digging back through the glaze of normality to show how strange reality can be. It cuts through the repetition of the ordinary, right to the bright-faceted moments that make us who we are. Some of the stories are unexpected, others are absurd, but even the most outlandish is uniquely human, in spite of – and in fact, because of – their peculiarity.
While there’s tons of wonderful weirdness in this collection, what makes it most effective is the authentic emotions it conveys. Though “In Different Rooms” features a couple who dress up in animal costumes for money, the story just before it, “By The Lake,” features the ruminations of a woman trapped in the circumstances of her family, disconnected and aimless. Nothing is particularly strange about the story other than the character’s thoughts; it makes a delightful contrast to the first line of “In Different Rooms” immediately afterwards: “I don’t care what Gerry says, I’m not sitting on the aluminum eggs in our plastic ‘nest’ in ninety five plus degree heat. Everyone has a limit, and that’s mine.”
These are stories about the kind of people you meet in supermarkets and bus stops, brief encounters that skim over depths that it’s almost a relief not to plunge into. This collection is the depths. Within them we realize that our own selves aren’t so different from the pageant of the odd presented in these pages. Leslie’s characters experience the same longing, restlessness, and isolation that plagues us all – only these characters experience them while, for example, walking from New York to Texas along the miles of electrical wires. It’s hard not to feel, while reading it, that if your own life were to be opened up in such a bald and unglamorous way, it would feel just as strange and just as familiar.
Despite containing over fifty individual stories, no two are remotely the same. Though certain themes repeat – such as marriage troubles, writers, or isolation – the originality of the characters make each episode unique. Some characters address their marital problems over a canoe, others by wearing lizard suits. In “The Drippage” one character muses, “I should’ve married my college girlfriend, Tina, who obsessively painted watercolors of road kill. She was different.” The spectrum of experience presented here leaves nothing more to be desired, or even imagined. It’s difficult to even conceive of a more interesting and varied collection of lives.
Though many of the stories are absurd, they’re by no means empty oddities. Each is powerful in its own right – part of their strangeness is the way they cut through the artifice that life is built on. They touch nerves and laugh. They don’t flinch. Sometimes strangeness is ugly or frightening, and other times it can be beautiful, even sublime; you will find all of these qualities in Root and Shoot.
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Amelia Fisher is a writer and recent graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University, living in Virginia and aspiring to Portland.