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Karen Russell’s ‘Vampires in Lemon Grove’ lives up to the hype

She’s been anointed a princess by the contemporary literary establishment – tattered though it is, like penurious but titled Britons who live off admission fees accrued by their historic homes.

And then, she’s been set onto literary celebrity’s red carpet – in the United States admittedly a stardom on the low-end of the scale in terms of brightness, behind that of Honey Boo-Boo but ahead, say, of Olympic kayakers. The result is that Karen Russell now gives us a story collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” that dares the reader to disagree with its author’s metaphorically awarded tiara.

It’s not necessarily fair to blame any author for the hype, because all she or he did was write. The rest results mostly from the commercial and critical machinery into which the pages are fed. However, there remains the actual work at the root of things: Is it good? Is the praise deserved?

Karen Russell’s 2011 novel “Swamplandia” was a Pulitzer finalist, and she made the best young American writers lists of The New Yorker, Granta and the National Book Foundation – quite a trifecta. So is she someone to keep an eye on?

“Vampires” is a story collection that begins with the eponymous title story, an entertaining, high-concept concoction. In this case the concept is, what if vampires were actually harmless misunderstood creatures who felt guilty about drinking blood, but were continually lured into it by the rest of us, attracted to the punk-goth-tragic-romantic aspects of the vampire mythos? Beautiful and damned – it’s a fairy tale life to many, the vampire way, but Russell here presents a first-person meditation on life as a vampire featuring an ancient, married narrator who looks not like Damon Salvatore of “Vampire Diaries” but like a “nonno,” a wrinkly grandfather – a palsied, liver-spotted fossil who’s part of the “local color” for tourists visiting a lemon orchard in contemporary Italy, sitting with a cane and dribbling lemonade all over himself.

“Over the years Magreb and I have tried everything – fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls. We have lived everywhere – Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca. We spent our honeymoon hopping continents, hunting liquid chimeras: mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogota, jackal’s milk in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties. We went thirsty in every region of the globe before finding our oasis here in the blue boot of Italy, at this dead nun’s lemonade stand. It’s only the lemons that give us relief.”

After centuries, the narrator and his wife Magreb have come to the grove because of the lemons – something they found quenched their thirst and let them avoid all the usual mess and bother and guilt of the blood-donor thing. But, the lemons are starting to lose their bite and the thirst is coming back. Along with mortality. That’s the crux of the story – what to do, when you’ve tried for centuries and the last hope for peace starts to disappear, in an increasing thirst, and the world urges you on, baring its throat? And you know that, with or without blood, you’re tired and not immortal?

The quote above gives a representative sense of Russell’s style and voice – deliberate but playful, a little too stolid for lyricism (although that is present in places here) but with surprise and creativity in the image making. The stories all are characterized by a slightly off-kilter perspective, whether what’s being imagined is vampire myth or adolescence in New Jersey or any of the wide variety of scenarios here.

Several of the stories are the high-concept contemporary standard – “The Barn at the End of Our Turn” amusingly but intriguingly imagines deceased U.S. presidents as horses in a stable, personalities and records reflected in breed and paddock behavior, and all hemmed in by an enigmatic rail fence that they alternately are fearful of and plot to leap over, while they try to figure out whether they’re in heaven or hell.

“Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” archly delineates just that – prescriptive observations about do’s and don’ts and existential planning for partying (“Rule One: Make Friends with Your Death”) at the Food Chain games featuring Team Krill versus Team Whale.

Perhaps the most accomplished story is “Proving Up,” a chillingly rendered and atypically neutrally voiced fable set in the sod-busting land rush days of the mid-19th century on the Great Plains. It’s a first-person story of a young boy’s harrowing errand on horseback through a haunting, apocalyptic landscape in which sod farmers try to stay alive long enough to stake land claims based on residence, under conditions so harsh that death is the easiest of the potential consequences. This long, mesmerizing story has an epic, universal feel akin to Paul Bowles’ Moroccan existentialist stories (most famously “The Sheltering Sky”) of the merciless, indifferent Sahara and the creatures (human and otherwise) that it breeds.

Russell in all the stories plays as do many writers with the surreal or fabulistic possibilities in everyday life, the “what ifs” spun out into “thens.” What if those seagulls fighting over flotsam on the beach are actually collecting things that they hoard and that turn out to predict the future (“The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979”)? What if when a disease devastates the silkworm population and cripples the silk industry in Meiji, Japan, girls are sold by poor families into imperial service not as concubines but into service spinning silk out of their own bodies (“Reeling for the Empire”)? What if an Iraq War vet’s tattoo of a battle scene on his back is actually something that a massage therapist can change by touching (“The New Veterans”)? What if a group of bullying teens finds the object of their bullying made into a facsimile, a scarecrow that mysteriously appears tied to a tree in the park that is their hangout (“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”)?

In the answers to these questions, there is mystery and wit and some fine writing, and signs that, yes, this is a writer to whom attention might beneficially be paid.


Vampires in the Lemon Grove

By Karen Russell


243 pages, $24.95

Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer and critic.