Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic’ |

Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic’

by Andrew Travers


‘The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic’

Christopher Merkner

232 pages, softcover; $15.95

Coffee House Press, 2014

Christopher Merkner has planted a bomb in the white-picket-fence sentimentalism of the American Midwest with his debut story collection. Filled with dark — sometimes cruel — humor and surreal takes on the quotidian realities of child-rearing, marriage and family life, “The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic” is a fierce and funny coming-out party for Merkner, who lives in Denver.

“In Lapland” is about the tyranny of home upkeep and suburban one-upmanship, following a young couple’s absurd journey through painting their house. “Direct Assault From Sweden” takes the unintended consequences of parents applauding a child’s bad art to extremes in one of the shorter and more brutal stories in the collection. In “We Have Them to Raise Us,” a wife plans a party with all of her ex-boyfriends and enlists her husband to organize it. In “Time in Norrmalmstorg,” an emasculated dad is assaulted by the pirate-costumed parents of his child’s classmate at a birthday party.

These off-kilter Midwestern tales are dispatches from Planet Barthelme. Like Donald Barthelme’s stories, they are filled with unexplained oddities (why is this 5-year-old the size of a 15-year-old again?), and there are times when you simply won’t understand (maybe you aren’t supposed to understand?) what a story is getting at. But, like Barthelme, at their best these alternative universes shed light on our own domestic foibles.

These stories will make you uncomfortable. They’re not for everyone. The first story in the collection, “Of Pigs and Children,” the plot of which includes a dead body and some heavy petting with a potbelly pig, is a good litmus test for whether Merkner is your cup of tea. I wouldn’t blame skittish readers for putting it down after that cringeworthy entry, but there is a wealth of fabulist pleasures to follow if you stick with it.

“The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic” is nominated for the Colorado Book Award for Short Story Collection. The awards ceremony is June 21 at the Doerr-Hosier Center at Aspen Meadows. Tickets are available by calling 303-984-7951.