Having closed out my grammar series, I’m now starting up a new series of posts in which I’ll share an excerpt from something I’ve read that made an impression on me and explain what I liked about it. The idea here is that appreciating compelling or artful writing can help us to become better writers ourselves. In this first installment, I consider a story by Joe Meno entitled “The Use of Medicine” and collected in his 2005 book of stories entitled Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir.

In the story, we meet a pair of twins — a boy and a girl — who cope with the loss of their father to suicide and of their mother who has withdrawn into her grief. They find an old medicine bag and begin injecting small animals with the sedative belladonna. Their carefully documented experiments turn into a sort of pageantry (literally: they begin dressing the animals) and culminate in an unintentional, darkly funny horror show designed to snap their mother out of her grief.

Having properly acquainted herself with the medical way, my sister, Isabella, after long hours of watching our mother alternating between crying and sipping lentil broth at her bedroom window, a motion that seemed quite heart-rending and replete with mucus, came to a diagnosis. Our mother had suffered a horrible shock, almost like a victim of electrocution. She found our father hanged in the cellar, but not only that, it was on her birthday. It seemed scientific to believe a shock of a most equal and opposite magnitude would have a definite curative effect. Scientifically, we decided a parade of costumed animals would do the trick.

The parade doesn’t go as planned, naturally:

We pushed the small red wagon out in front of our mother’s bedroom window and gingerly arranged the ornamented animals in a small ellipse on the soft side lawn. When all the slumbering participants were in place, my twin and I began to shout loudly. My mother came to the window, panicked, holding both hands over her chest. She stared at us for signs of injury, and when she was sure we were all right, she looked down at the still-stagnant queue sleeping quietly at our feet. Our mother stood transfixed, somewhere on the brink of dreamlike wonder and horror, and in that moment it seemed the experiment could have gone either way. But something had gone wrong. Our patients were not waking. My mother stood there with her hands over her heart, seeing the delicate shambles, the massacre in pink and white bows, and then she turned away.

Meno’s story is striking foremost because it’s just so darned weird. It’s not the only weird story in the collection, and I suspect such weirdness might turn some people off. For me, a story told from a different perspective or that makes me think of a scenario I would never in my wildest imaginings have conceived of is a real win. It gets me outside my conventional default mode of thinking about stories (and about the world, really).

I think Meno’s story is also brilliant in its tone, which incorporates both a childlike perspective and a clinical perspective in a way that oddly works, the clinical reinforcing the gravity with which these children went about their experiments.

Finally, the story balances this really dark humor — we’re talking about the dressing up and inadvertent murder of animals with the aim of cheering up a grieving mother — with the earnestness of the children, who are after all just trying to get their mother back after having lost their father. It’s a strangely realistic story for one that at the same time seems so luridly improbable. I can really imagine children of a certain age coming up with a scheme like the one these children devise.

This collection was the first I had read of Meno’s. I’ve read another story collection and one of his novels, and this collection is the best among them. Reading the best of these stories makes me want to write, and that urge is one of the hallmarks by which I tend to judge really good writing.

Have you read Meno? Are there other off-beat authors or stories that put your brain into creative mode?

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  1. John Waters’ books always do that to me – I’m rather fond of “Shock Value” – it made me go from liking him to loving him and “Crackpot, The Obsessions of John Waters” – articles that are just great (http://www.amazon.com/Crackpot-Obsessions-John-Waters/dp/0743246276/ref=la_B000APM1ES_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1366733711&sr=1-2)

    They are also great stories about him and his life and what guides his vision for his movies. ‘Hairspray’ is my absolute favorite –


  2. The story could go the other way too.But the most interesting lesson to be learned i.e Medicine is not something to play with,especially children who have no knowledge,how medicine works.


  3. Ah, this is a great idea. The demo of how this writer blends the childlike and the medical-scientific is a terrific illustration of writing craft. Very instructive. Thank you. (And I don’t actually think it’s weird!)


  4. I so much admire the creativity in the story.
    A classical introduction of humor into tragedy.
    The suicide of their father, the shock that their mother had gone into and entire moody scenario triggered such a weird but funny solution in the children’s minds. I really wonder where the idea came from!
    Lovely post!


      1. Well, humor is of course subjective, but if you’re receptive to dark humor, the idea of dressing up anesthetized animals and putting them in a parade to cheer up a bereft parent is so strange and strangely apt and at the same time horrible that it’s pretty funny. It’s not funny ha-ha so much as disturbingly funny.

        There’s also the fact that humor often plays on the unexpected. The whole scene is unexpected, but then when the children realize that they’ve made a mistake contrary to their intentions, structurally it’s very joke-like. Imagine someone opening the can of peanut brittle only to have fake snakes spring out at him. Now imagine that the person has a heart attack as a result. It’s funny. It’s horrible. It’s both. This is dark humor, and naturally it’s not everybody’s cup of tea.


  5. I have not read Meno, and if this had been the jacket blurb, I probably would not have chosen it. Still I’m intruiged and would like to know how this story ended. Did the mac macabre animal parade work?


    1. Well, stories like this don’t often have tidy endings, so we don’t really get a stated verdict. Part of the point of the story, I think, is that there probably aren’t things that work for such grief. The story is less about what happens to the kids or to the mom within the confines of the imagined world than about a sort of coming of age and a realization of a horrible (not necessarily literal) truth expressed in the closing line: “Medicine never cures the heartaches.” So I guess my answer is a qualified “no” (and the qualification “how could it?”).