Tim Fitts’s collection Hypothermia is a series of short stories set in the deep south of fundamentalist Christian schools, casual racism and endemic poverty so impacted and pervasive as to go without mention. The stories themselves are profound, hilarious, and frightening—attempting as they do to peel back the hypocrisy of the culture in which they occur, even as the narratives feel tempted by the power of that culture, and the charisma of those who would wield it.
And so, in “Does Anything Beautiful Emerge,” a group of kids playing with frogs in the swamp begin to plot how to burn down their school, while in “Hypothermia,” a serious young man eager to protect his country becomes hopelessly infatuated with the violence of war. In “Dogs,” a group of boys tasked with killing a pack of wild dogs is unable to find any, and so they settle on a domestic one they find tied up behind a dilapidated house:
“It’s not one of the dog dogs.”
“Probably not. But look at that rope. You know what I’d say if I was tied up like that for life?” Marlon asked. “I’d say take me out...If you have any compassion, cut me loose or kill me.”
“Let’s cut it loose,” Digger said.
“Then it’ll join up with the rest of the pack and be one of the wild dogs. We’ll have done the exact opposite of what we were supposed to do.”
“Those dogs would probably gang up on it and tear it into oblivion,” Digger said.
“Or let it join,” Marlon said. “Strength in numbers. They’ll initiate it, but eventually, it will become part of the pack...Either way, we have to shoot it now. If we set it free, we’re counterproductive. If we don’t set it free, we have to act out of compassion. That dog is suffering. Dogs need to roam. Besides, God gave us dominion over animals.”
That final evocation of God acts to close the argument, and thereby excuse the boys’ coming, inevitable, and abhorrent abuse of the animal. Indeed, “God” in this collection so often acts as a sanction for the very sort of human violence that justifies its excesses as Old Testament-style retribution. And the black humor that suffuses the above exchange—as it does many such exchanges in the collection—is one that works to make just a touch more bearable the cruel logic and the appalling violence that Fitts’s characters perpetrate in their God’s name.
Young boys as agents of mayhem are a recurring theme in the book. Fitts’s stories are populated by preteens, dropouts, and day laborers, figures on the edges of society who both reject that society’s values even as they yearn for its acceptance. They rail against, ridicule and attack their bosses, parents, and elders, all the while praying for vengeance as evidence of those figures' interest, potency, and the legitimacy of the system that would authorize their power.
In “All Eighty-Eight Keys,” four kids retreat to the woods to drink and have sex, only to meet two Mormon missionaries who are anxious to deliver their own particular understandings of sin: “When you see an individual impaired by drink, or drugs,” says the missionary Micah, “the individual may feel the sensation of having another spirit take over their body, but what is really happening is that person has freed themselves from balance, law, and wisdom...They basically become animals…” As Micah explains it, “You can have God at the controls, or you can have some dumbass. Good luck with that.” One of the boys, anxious to test Micah’s faith in God’s control, challenges the missionary to step into a pool of quicksand—a challenge Micah accepts, much to the boys’ delight. Quickly sinking up to his neck, “Micah’s eyes opened and shut like flaps. His face was smeared with wet silt reflecting silver in the onset of morning. 'Hey,' Kessinger elbowed Tag. 'Look at his mouth...He’s almost like a fish.'”
This particular story is told from the viewpoint of Tag, a quiet boy who watches the scene unfold with a wary awe, sensing as he does something altogether other hovering around the edges of the events. The boy whom Tag worships is just a little too cruel. The girls he desperately desires are a little too anxious to prove they’re unafraid. Tag even distrusts the strength of his own desire, remembering a youth group leader who insisted that “teenagers having sex before marriage would cause Christ to feel the pains of crucifixion all over again.” Is Tag to believe his elders, his friends, his own body? Everything is called into question and, as that story ends with the boys half-heartedly reaching out for a slowly drowning Micah, a definitive resolution remains elusive.
So many of these stories move from the quotidian and familiar, from kids riding bikes or from a couple having a drink on a patio into a larger, more mysterious and ultimately threatening space in which this smaller familiar existence lies, ignorant of the true elements at play. The engines of these stories tend to be characters who both recognize and confront those true elements, that larger world, and yet the manner in which they do so feels threatening as well,contaminated in some way by the greater darkness.
In “Does Anything Beautiful Emerge,” the boy Jackson listens to his uncle Runner describe his job at the aluminum plant: “He told [Jackson] that when aluminum is molten, it does not glow like iron or steel, but holds its color. Jackson noticed that his uncle’s eyes watered as he talked about this world. Runner said that he was not sure why, but this trait in an element was a thing to admire, and the smelting process is so hot and smoky and oppressive that you cannot imagine anything so beautiful emerges.”
After dinner Jackson’s uncle takes him outside to smoke pot, where the older man expounds his theory of life to the boy:
“It’s simple, and it’s everything...You don’t learn it from school, and you don’t learn it from pussy. You almost learn it from pussy, but pussy burns you. It’s this. This is what I’m talking about.”
But Jackson was still unsure about what ‘this’ thing was; he felt as if a layer of film had been placed between his mind and his thoughts, and all he could think about was terror.
Fitts’s collection is one of the most ambitious I’ve read, trying as it does to confront and expose the old and difficult questions, always refusing to settle for the easy answer. The story “Blueprint,” for instance, slowly brings the reader into a world where respectable teachers gently explain to their students that Cain’s descendants are different from real people, closer to animals and bereft of a soul, while “All the Way From Junaluska” somehow manages to deliver its emotionally devastating conclusion through a protagonist who feels almost nothing at the tragedy he helps to bring about. The balance of these stories, the indiscernible razor that they walk between darkness and a salvation that may in truth be nothing more than an illusion, makes this collection challenging, troubling, and immensely rewarding.
Disclosure notice: Tim Fitts' Hypothermia is published by Madhat Press, which also published Cameron MacKenzie's novel, The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career.
Cameron MacKenzie's work has appeared in Able Muse, The Rumpus, SubStance and The Michigan Quarterly Review, among other journals. His essays have been collected in The Waste Land at 90: A Retrospective and Edward P. Jones: New Essays. His novel The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career, a novel about the early life of Pancho Villa, is now available. He teaches English at Ferrum College.