PLOT - In his short story collection, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic, Christopher Merkner uses humor and satire, to peel apart relationships and family dynamics, with a heavy emphasis on people living in the midwest with scandinavian heritage.
LIKE- The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic came my way via the book fair at the 2016 AWP Conference. I love small presses and discovering new authors. My method was to go up to a booth, in this case the booth for Coffee House Press, and ask the seller what they recommended. "Hey, I don't know you, you don't know me, but what is your favorite book at your booth." This method works surprisingly well most of the time. The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic came enthusiastically recommended.
I got a kick out of recognizing my relatives in Merkner's characters. I have Norwegian heritage on both sides, with my great grandparents having immigrated to the mid-west region of the United States. Although I was born in Southern California (my parents were mostly raised here too), they still clung to many of the traits and overall way of thinking that they inherited from their parents; stoic, passive aggression, and exceptionally well-mannered while in public. Merkner uses these traits against his characters, forcing them to confront the negative results of their behavior. The funny thing is, even if they understood the moral lesson, I doubt any of the characters would admit it. Stubbornness is another trait.
One of my favorite stories was, Last Cottage, in which a poor lake resort community, decides that it will try to force the Larson family, to sell their land. The Larson's visit their cottage only in the summer and they are the final family that hasn't sold to developers. Rather than speak to the Larson's directly, community members first vandalize their house, damaging the roof during winter, so that they will get interior water damage. When that doesn't make the Larson's leave, the entire community, including law enforcement, pitches in to electrocute fish in the lake and purposefully directing the mass of rotting fish to the small patch of beach by the Larson's cottage. Up until the very twisted end of the story ( No spoilers), both the Larson's and the community play a game of passive aggression and manners, even as the stakes rise. Merkner excels at increasing the tension and keeping the suspense.
Another favorite was Of Pigs and Children. This one is memorable for its imagery. It's gross and weird, but also visceral, and it would not leave my mind. It's the first story in the collection, making it a great litmus test. If you can handle this story, keep on reading, if not, Merkner might not be your cup of tea.
One more stand-out was We Have Them to Raise Us. The concept behind this story was intriguing; a wife tells her husband that she would like to invite all of her former lovers to her thirty-first birthday party. She asks her husband to help plan it, and he can be there, as long as he doesn't make overt references to their marriage or new baby. What is most fascinating is how the husband responds. It's unexpected, however it also plays right into those themes of manners and passive aggression.
DISLIKE - I found myself disconnected from many of the stories, almost skimming them.
RECOMMEND- I would definitely recommend the stories that I liked, Merkner has a vivid imagination. I love his balance between wit and truly dark, horrific material. However, I can't recommend, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic, as a collection, too many of the stories were a disconnect.