Title notwithstanding, the short stories in Bobcat and Other Stories (Algonquin, $14.95), Rebecca Lee’s debut collection, don’t take place in the wilds. But they do sneak up on you when you’re not looking. And that’s odd, considering the sheltered settings — college campuses, a children’s party, cozy kitchens and living rooms “suggestive of the deepest, richest kind of family life.”
On the surface, the characters also appear tame — professors of history and child psychology, graduate students, writers and the kind of people who quote poetry to themselves out of the blue. Yet as they go about the business of teaching classes and throwing dinner parties, dangers lie in precisely those unguarded moments, because the territory of these intricate, layered tales is heavily mined.
Everything leads up to the moment when Lee pounces — and she is a brilliant, subtle, tender stalker. The joys of a new marriage, a case of plagiarism, a cheating coworker, a crush on a fellow student all distract from the inevitable attack until all that’s left is to “crouch down, hold tight” and endure it.
In the title story, the bobcat is a real one that tried to kill a female hiker in Nepal, but at the dinner party she attends, it stands in for the lurking surprise awaiting her happily married hosts. Throughout the evening, as the wife worries over everything from her “quick-start terrine” to the outcome of a legal case involving a Hmong immigrant, she watches another couple for signs that the husband is cheating. As to the real threat, Lee offers playful clues, one of which is a guest descended from the infamous Donner Party: “I watch my back,” her husband jokes.
A professor of creative writing at UNC Wilmington, Lee grew up in Canada, and much of the action in “Bobcat” takes place in Saskatchewan and the Midwest during the 1980s — years of student protest, Ronald Reagan and the fall of Communism provide dramatic backdrops. These, too, slip into the intimate storylines almost unnoticed, eventually moving her themes of infidelity, unrequited love and moral ambiguity onto a larger, more universal stage.
In “Slatland,” a depressed 11-year-old is sent to a child psychologist who suffers from a tic “so extreme that it looked like it might swallow his face.” He uses such bizarre slang that the girl can barely understand him, yet he effortlessly reads her problem and offers a treatment that works within hours. His patient grows up to one day suspect her fiancé of being married to a woman who writes him from Ceausescu’s Romania. To translate the letters and settle the question, the narrator returns to her old therapist, whose relentless tic, ability to read Romanian and long-ago idiosyncrasy take on a haunting significance.
Stasselova, a Polish linguistics professor in “The Banks of the Vistula,” plays a relentless cat-and-mouse game with a student in whose plagiarized paper he instantly recognizes decades-old Soviet propaganda. Though the professor, a former Red Guard found guilty of treason, is the more practiced dissembler, the student is no mean opponent: “Luckily, I had experience lying in my adolescence,” she tells herself, “and knew it was possible to win even though both parties were aware of the lie.”
“Min” traces the emotional connections between Sarah, a female college student, and Min, the son of a Chinese diplomat, when the two travel to his hometown of Hong Kong to spend the summer. There they continue their relationship with a twist — Min’s father puts the young woman in charge of arranging his son’s marriage — that echoes the father’s job: to decide which of thousands of Vietnamese refugees to repatriate in the face of certain and deadly reprisals.
Meanwhile, in the process of choosing Min’s wife, Sarah runs across an older application with a description of his mother, herself once a candidate: “Is not Chinese, but of lowland Himalayas. Has no wealth, but carries purple light. Seems like a cloud about to burst. Sleeps lightly, fond of gods.”
Lee gives us many such passages of almost magical beauty. I could easily see turning my back on danger while lingering over this one:
I stared beyond his head out the window, which was blurry with water, so that the turrets of the campus looked like a hallucination, like some shadow world looming back there in his unconscious.
She also serves up more earthy fare, pungent helpings of “life’s deepest questions” seasoned with wicked humor. When a woman’s 7-year-old son is told to come to a “World Party” at his school dressed as a character from a book, he opts to go as a black hole. “Well, he’s testing the hypothesis,” says her colleague. “Is it a World Party or not? Is everything really invited?”
Early in the book, a character remembers a friend whose mother taught that “ideas were tools to excavate the truth, not the truth itself, which lies somewhat beyond the reach of minds, so to be in their house was like being in the middle of a never-ending, fascinating conversation at all times.” Each story in this intoxicating, first-rate collection will take you there.
Just remember to watch your back.
A version of this review ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 7.