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Gwen E. Kirby's stunning collection of short stories takes readers on a wild ride

Penguin Books

"I wonder why I'm risking so much just to have another person to apologize to," reflects the narrator of "Here Preached His Last"-- one of the stories in Gwen E. Kirby's new short story collection, Shit Cassandra Saw.

The woman is having an affair with a colleague; while she senses it might end badly, she can't bring herself to feel sorry for her infidelity: "I don't regret cheating on my husband, even now ... I regret that it took me this long to learn to use my body for its own sake, to let my only emotion during sex to be lust, be greed."

It's a remarkable story, and not just because one of the supporting characters is the ghost of an 18th-century preacher who appears to the woman to shame her, calling her a "whore" on a regular basis. Kirby has a gift for writing about characters in sometimes extraordinary circumstances with a mostly straight face, revealing truths that cast a bright light on women trying to make their way in an endlessly hostile society.

That's the case with the collection's second story, "A Few Normal Things That Happen a Lot," which opens with a man telling a woman passing by him on the street to smile. It's the kind of interaction women are subjected to every day by creepy randos, often accompanied by leering comments ("You'd be so much prettier...").

The woman in Kirby's story, though, doesn't ignore the man or roll her eyes. She actually does smile, displaying a fanged mouth, then "bites off the man's hand, cracks the bones and spits them out, and accidentally swallows his wedding ring, which gives her indigestion." (The wedding ring is a nice touch.) The story is inhabited by other women with superpowers they use to deal with hostile men — one has a remote control that can switch men off; another can morph into a werewolf. It's a smart, funny story that puts a fascinating spin on the aggressions — both micro- and macro- — that women endure all too frequently.

While Kirby has a clear predilection for the bizarre, she plays some of her stories straight, and those are just as entertaining as the fantastical ones. "Casper" follows three girls who work at the Unclaimed Baggage Depot, "Greenleaf, Alabama's, second-best and only other unclaimed baggage store." It's a fairly miserable job, with the only benefit being the chance to root through suitcases, sometimes discovering little, abandoned treasures. It's generally never anything too exciting, but that changes when one of the girls makes a special find: "It was a taxidermied albino wallaby and it was the greatest thing to ever happen to the Depot, until it was the end of everything."

At this point in the book, Kirby has taken her readers on more than a few wild rides, so this feels like a setup for another trip into the weird zone. But the story plays out in a straightforward manner, with Kirby delving into the psyches of the teenage girls as they navigate their post-adolescence; it's a gorgeous story that treats its characters with real humanity that finds them — as conflicted and imperfect as they are — enough.

The collection ends with the chilling "We Handle It," which tells the story of a group of girls at a summer music camp in Tennessee. While swimming in a reservoir one day, they notice a middle-aged man watching them: "He regards us from the shore in that way we are learning to expect from a certain kind of man."

The girls spread the word to their camp mates about the man, casting him as a pathetic creep; they "laugh until we feel almost sorry for him." After another encounter with the man, the girls contemplate telling a camp counselor or the police, but conclude nothing would come of it. In the story's last pages, the tense shifts from present to future, casting doubt on the shocking ending — it's another story that proves Kirby has mastered the art of short fiction, and it's a fitting conclusion to her remarkable collection.

Kirby's book succeeds not just because she's a preternaturally gifted prose stylist, but because of her willingness to take risks. She experiments with points of view and occasionally dips into metafiction ("Midwestern Girl Is Tired of Appearing in Your Short Stories" is a master class in storytelling, as well as a hilarious commentary on a fiction scene that's seen men overrepresented for decades.) And yet she also knows when to tap the brakes, when to step back and let her carefully drawn characters speak for themselves. It's a stunning collection from a writer whose talent and creativity seem boundless.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.