Christopher Merkner is a Shirley Jackson for the contemporary Midwest, where the ties of family and community intersect darkly with suburban American life. In these stories, an enraged village gaslights unsuspecting vacationers and a young man delays a impending confession, fondling the nostrils of his mother’s pet pig. Sharp and uneasy, for these inheritors of tradition, that which binds them most closely—offering stability and identity and comfort—are precisely the qualities that set them back, pull them down, burden, limit, and ruin them.
“Merkner’s first short story collection provides a voyeuristic vantage point on fractured lives. He has the striking ability to turn the familiar into the uncanny and morph the comfortable into the weird, and, clearly, he’s at home in that strange realm. In most of the stories, we witness lives at the moment an individual’s identity begins to fray, sometimes slowly and sometimes swiftly. These changes are both painful and thought provoking to witness through the book’s unrelenting first-person perspective. At times Merkner’s prose evokes unease, but more often it encourages a chuckle, and his plot twists will leave even the most seasoned reader surprised. In each story, even those that only run for three pages, the tension mounts deliciously, many times with no foreseeable relief. The true beauty of these tales lies in their delicate endings, which manage to both tie up loose ends and leave everything hanging, so that they are simultaneously satisfying and mysterious. Such complexity makes great reading for lovers of short fiction, and for all who wish to witness a new master at work.” —Booklist
“Christopher Merkner wastes no time establishing the odd atmosphere that pervades this debut collection. . . . the longer [stories] show what Mr. Merkner can do when he marries his absurd plots and unnerving deadpan tone to genuine emotional concerns.” —New York Times
“The 17 stories here are wondrous strange. Husbands and wives, parents and children, they all come together in surreal and dreamlike ways. . . . [P]rofound and terrifically fun.” —Star Tribune
“The true beauty of these tales lies in their delicate endings, which manage to both tie up loose ends and leave everything hanging, so that they are simultaneously satisfying and mysterious. Such complexity makes great reading for lovers of short fiction, and for all who wish to witness a new master at work.” —Booklist
“Merkner’s narratives pulsate with confidence, mixing the weird (a five-year-old the size of a 15-year-old, a couple that paints an entire house one color) with moments of earnestness, and the result is a memorable book.” —Publishers Weekly
“In his debut collection, Merkner presents a darkly funny set of stories that look closely at heartland American culture and reflect it back with devastating accuracy. . . . [His] relentlessly deadpan reportorial voice is not so different from that of Garrison Keillor (Lake Wobegon Days) or the Coen brothers (Fargo). Going in unexpected directions that evoke both laughter and horror, these stories will appeal to readers who are willing to give in to their sense of the absurd.” —Library Journal
“[B]oth chilling and funny too, and oft-uncomfortable for people familiar with the settings. Merkner is really good at melding his observations with his imaginations into something hugely entertaining.” —Detroit Metro Times
“The premises are wild and strange; the writing is full of dark humor.”—Missouri Review
“Merkner starts off by saying ‘that life seduces from afar’ and The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic seduces you from the start.” —Pure Politics
“Merkner’s sentences are crisp and cruel . . . As a whole, the book resembles the movie Fargo with its heart fed through the wood chipper, leaving a work that is often possessed of cold, uncompromising beauty.” —KGB Bar Lit Magazine
“The stories in [Merkner's] debut collection are formally playful in their interrogation of Midwestern privilege and parental prerogatives, each rendering the familiar strange again so that we might see it anew.” —Brooklyn Rail
“Sharing the seemingly ordinary setting of the Midwest, these short stories turn simple and normal into weird, melancholy, and wonderful. . . . The stories range from darkly comic to genuinely sad, to more than a bit unsettling. But all share a strong voice . . . and they all exhibit the author’s ability to keep his work in the realm of plausibility.” —ForeWord Reviews
“[B]y the end of The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic, I felt I was just getting to know Christopher Merkner—not only the talented writer of this intriguing collection, but also the extraordinary writer he will become.” —Three Guys One Book
“Coffee House Press delivers yet another original, absorbing book. Merkner’s Midwestern backdrop and icy storytelling makes the familiar alien and the grotesque hilarious.” —Largehearted Boy, “WORD Best Books of the Week”
“The stories in Christopher Merkner’s new collection The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic wonderfully mix the surreal and absurd with the everyday, and are incredibly fun.” —Largehearted Boy, “Book Notes”
“The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic is dark, but Merkner finds levity in the darkness, and celebrates the oddities of small life. The collection represents moments of joy and frustration in parenting, marriage, parent-child relationships, and the ties of the community. Merkner isn’t afraid to look into dark spaces and expose painfully honest truths.” —Bookslut
“For Nordic-tinged angst in the New World, Christopher Merkner offers proof that the Scandinavian upper lip is alive and stiff among the descendants of Swedish immigrants that populate the Upper Midwest.” —Cooper Street
“These earnest and darkly surreal vignettes hold a magnifying glass over Midwestern suburbia.” —Modern Midwest
“Christopher Merkner is the happiest, most disturbed—certainly the most happily disturbed—writer I know.” —Padgett Powell
“Christopher Merkner’s Midwestern fabulism makes him the Grant Wood of short fiction. Rare are writers with the gift to mash up domestic and gothic in ways uncanny and heartbreaking, and Merkner’s one of the gifted. No one’s better at defamiliarizing a family meal, a kiddie birthday party, Grandma’s funeral, or the well-meaning, exhausted ways we reprimand our three-year-olds when they smack their siblings: ‘We ask her if she would like to be hit in the face with a book. We ask her if she would like to be injured. She says she would not.’ Trust me, you would like to be hit in the face with The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic. It’s that good.” —Josh Russell
“Christopher Merkner’s chillingly funny stories are a substantial reminder that the two weirdest and most disturbing places in the galaxy are the mind and the home. They also demonstrate repeatedly that it is possible for the skilled artist to draw laughter through a wince. This is my favorite kind of comic writing.” —Chris Bachelder
“With hilarious, biting prose, Merkner establishes himself as a masterful new voice of modern satire. These brilliant stories lay bear our greatest follies with a precision that leaves the reader humbled and breathless: here we have a must-read indictment of moral defect that could not be more saturated with importance and entertainment.” —Alissa Nutting
“Donald Barthelme and Tove Jansson did not have a child, as far as any of us know, but if they did, then that child would have been Christopher Merkner, and Christopher Merkner has written a book worthy of his genius would-be parents. The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic is wild, it is wonderful, it is animated by its author’s unfailingly expansive treatment of his restless, covetous, striving, limited, dangerous, endearing characters. One of those characters in one of these stories notices that ‘The sun blazes at an odd angle.’ This is one of this book’s gifts to its lucky reader: its sun blazes at an odd angle so that we might see how strange and marvelous the old tired world can be.” —Brock Clarke, author of Exley and An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
“Obsessive and purposefully flat, Merkner’s book is a triumph of unpleasantness, and his stories are Midwestern gothics, focused on bleak and colorless domestic spaces.”—Brazos Bookstore
“This sounds very intellectual,” I said to her. “Clearly, this is a game of the mind.”
“Yes.” She had thought about it a lot during the long days and nights of nursing, she said, and she knew she had to see these men again. She was certain. She needed to see these men again, one more time, as many as would come see her.
I turned a page of the newspaper with tremendous care. I said, “So, this is divorce.”
She had just slid a spoonful of cereal into her mouth. She shook her head and made a face. “This has nothing to do with that,” she said. I nodded. She chewed. I waited. “Look,” she continued, “com- pared to the time and energy I spent with those guys collectively, you and I just don’t have a prayer. No one would.”
“Aging is fascinating.”
“You just want to say ‘hello.’”
“I imagine there’s more to it than ‘hello.’”
“I’m sleeping in a kitchen chair a lot right now.”
I looked up from the paper. She smiled and shook her head while she crunched her cereal. Our child was sleeping in his swinging apparatus upstairs. We were not to let the child sleep in this or any other swinging apparatus, so we were pretending the child was awake.
I went outside, turned on the spigot, and began watering a patch of yellow lawn near the front porch. Days after she’d given birth, she had mentioned a few of her former lovers by name. But I hadn’t listened. I wasn’t focused on that kind of thing. Things like that didn’t matter to me. The new baby had made me unusually thoughtless. I went to the grocery store about five times a day. When she said our son’s eyes reminded her of Benjamin, the boy tucked like a football under her arm, nursing, I was running out the door to get kefir and organic fruit. I said, “Yeah,” and I locked the door behind me.
The lawn had dried badly. It would not take the water. It pooled as though on cement. After Benjamin, she’d mentioned a few other names too, wistful. Charles came up when it became clear we would need to buy our son a swimsuit for the baby pool—a little infant swimsuit—because Charles used to have the most interesting swimsuits. Charles she would like to see in his swimming trunks again, preferably in Cape Cod, where they had first swum together years ago, when she was nineteen and twenty. And she could also remember him in his navy t-shirt. He had incredible pectorals, Charles, but more importantly he had a way of listening to her talk for hours at a time, a way of making time seem so light and spacious you felt that you’d transcended it. That was Charles, and I’d really not listened. I went back inside.
“I’m worried,” I said to her.
“Your worst enemy might be doing this badly. Maybe I could do a magic show for all of you.”
She seemed to give this a thought. She looked out the window. Our mutual appreciation of my sense of humor had really degenerated. She said, “I don’t know if you’d be here at all, would you?” “I don’t play the oboe,” I said. “I mean, it might be weird to have you two here.
I’m not really sure this would be about you or him or us.”
“Right,” I said. “I understand.”
“Do you understand?”
I did not understand. I do not understand.
I was sleeping in the kitchen chair in those days. At night Kimberly would be up handling our screaming son five, six, ten times. I couldn’t distinguish the first handling from the last. I didn’t know dawn from dusk. I could achieve consciousness instantly, leaping to gather a cloth or a soft thing or an electronic mechanism for her, her voice summoning me from rooms of the house I felt I barely knew, and then I could fall away again in the kitchen chair, uncertain that I’d ever left it, uncertain that I’d ever given her the thing she’d needed. Sometimes she would just materialize across the table from me. I would open my eyes and she would be sitting there across from me. She liked to say, “Are you feeling sorry for yourself?”
Kapler was another early name, Kappy. She had told me, I believe, that our son’s flesh smelled the way Kappy smelled after he’d washed himself. This Kappy apparently used to take exceptionally long baths in a large claw-foot tub made of green porce- lain, and he’d had the ability to create these enor- mous suds of soap that went by a name she could no longer remember. To this too I said nothing, nod- ding, I imagine, as though she’d made a comical remark about my hair. It’s astonishing in retrospect. My wife went on to say that, like our son, this man could smell like delicious soap all day. She said she wished she could remember the name of that soap. “God,” she said, “I loved that soap.” Then she smelled our son deeply and closed her eyes.
Sometimes at work my colleagues drop by my office and say things like, “Can you believe Reynolds is folding?” Or they say, “Can you believe that, in like two months, we’ll be eating Turkey, Ohio, with spoons?” I always say “I know” to this sort of positing of the future, because while I can- not believe such things in the present moment, having been burned in the past by things that were not what they’d seemed, I trust that I will entirely believe them after they occur. “I know” is my way of acknowledging that I know how hard it is to believe something that seems likely to happen, but has no god-given assurance of actually happening. If one of these young tycoons had swept into my office and said, “Can you believe your wife is going to ask you to write the invitations asking her lovers to come to your house?” I would have said, “I know,” because nothing whatsoever in that period, with a new human having ruptured our lives, nothing in that period would have indicated that she might not, in fact, ask me to write these invitations.
“It’s better if you do it,” she said. “Less awkward.”
“You’d like me to invite your BFs to your BFP.”
“Are you sixteen?” Then she explained that she wanted me to write the invitation from her perspective. She said she wanted me to write the invitation in such a way that it seemed to be written by her—a direct solicitation—but that if pressed she could say she didn’t have “the balls” to write it herself, that “a friend” had written it for her. This would give her the freedom of conscience that she said she needed to be able to look these men in the eye.
“Big Fucking Party,” I said. “You’re pretty sure they’re going to jump at this.
“Oh,” she said, “they’ll come.”